Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease
(The Soil and Health)

by Sir Albert Howard C.I.E., M.A.

Chapter 10
Soil Fertility and Human Health

In the last two chapters the relation between soil fertility and the health of crops and of livestock was discussed. But what of the effect of a fertile soil on human health? How does the produce of an impoverished soil affect the men and women who have to consume it? The purpose of this chapter is to show how an answer to these questions is being obtained.

When discussing how crops and livestock are influenced by an impoverished or by a murdered soil, the subject is obviously restricted to the solid portion of the earth's crust, because cultivated plants and domesticated animals are nourished by what the earth's green carpet produces. But when we consider mankind, we have to include the liquid portion of this planet -- oceans, lakes, and rivers -- which provide a proportion of our food. We must also take note of the produce of the large area of uncultivated land in the shape of forests, prairies, and so forth, which produce some fraction of our nourishment. These additional sources of food have not been sensibly altered by homo sapiens. He has so far not seriously attempted to increase the harvest of the sea by means of chemical manures or to interfere with the natural produce of the forest or the prairie. These have escaped the attention of agricultural science and their crops are now what they have been for centuries -- Nature's unspoilt harvest.

We must further include in a survey of our consumption the wholeness of produce as created by Nature. This point is of the greatest importance in considering such things as our daily bread. Freshness is another factor, particularly in vegetable food. Finally we must consider the influence on our general nutrition of the various food preservation processes such as canning, dehydration, and freezing.

The food supply of civilized man is, therefore, a wide subject. Its investigation bristles with difficulties -- some are inherent in the subject, others are man made. For all these reasons we must, therefore, not expect to obtain such rapid and such clear-cut results as are easily possible when considering the relation between soil fertility and the health of crops and livestock.

Let us first consider the difficulties which are inherent in the subject. These are at least three. In the first place, the average expectation of life of a human being is many times that of the average crop and of most of our domesticated animals; human beings also carry large reserves which can easily be used. Any results on health due to the food supply are, therefore, likely to develop slowly. In the second place, we cannot experiment on human beings in the same way as we can on crops and animals. Lastly, it is at present almost impossible to obtain regular supplies of the produce of well-farmed land, with which to feed a group of people for the time needed to show how such produce influences their health and well-being. Except in a very few cases, food is not marketed according to the way it is grown. The buyer knows nothing of the way the land was manured or poisoned. The only way to obtain suitable material would be for the scientific investigator himself to take up a piece of land and grow the food. This, so far as my knowledge goes, has not been done. This omission alone explains the scarcity of reliable experiments and results, and why so little real progress has been made in human nutrition. Most of the laboratory work of the past has been founded on the use of material very indifferently grown. Moreover, no particular care has been taken to see that the food has been eaten fresh from its source. The investigations of the past on which our ideas of nutrition are, for the moment, based have, therefore, little or no solid foundation.

When we come to consider the man-made obstacles that have to be overcome in any investigation of human nutrition, we reach what may fairly be called the citadel -- the fortress, as it were, that must first be reduced before the final investigations which are needed can even begin. These difficulties are bound up with the present-day organization of the medical profession. As is well known, our doctors are not only trained to study and cure disease, but receive their remuneration either from the State or from their patients for these duties. The general outlook of our medical men is, therefore, pathological: like any other profession they have to consider how to make a living in return for the services they render: they have also organized themselves somewhat on trade union lines. There is now little or no training for positive health: no openings and no remuneration exist for the pioneer who wishes to ascertain and demonstrate the connection between soil fertility and health. The great prizes of the profession lie in the opposite direction -- in surgery and in conventional medicine. There is no Harley Street in which the apostles of real preventive medicine can be found and consulted.

But thanks to the work of the pioneers of the profession itself, a change is taking place. The importance of positive health, of real preventive medicine, and the reform of medical education and training, so that an altogether new type of medical man can be created, fitted to lay the foundation of real preventive medicine -- the public health system of to- morrow -- are now being actively debated. Naturally these include the whole future of the medical profession, of our hospitals, and the place of the State in the new organization. As there will be no source of private remuneration for men and women engaged in promoting health and preventing disease at its source, the State is the obvious paymaster. The whole movement is a natural development of the present panel system. But the individualists among the medical profession object to their profession coming under the control of the Ministry of this or that. They point out how the dead hand of the permanent government official is certain to stifle all originality, all freedom, and all progress. Judging from my own personal experience of the way the State has ruined agricultural research, there is much to be said for seeing to it that the apostles of preventive medicine must have scope, freedom to work out their own salvation, and above all protection from the petty interference of the average bureaucrat who, at any moment, may be promoted to control men immeasurably superior to himself.

The problem is the age-old one of reconciling the claims of the individual and of the organization. State service pure and simple suggests no solution for such a case: it would merely provide an example of what to avoid. But this does not mean that no solution is possible. The judiciary, for example, is constantly recruited from an endless stream of able lawyers who carry out their work quite independently and unhampered by the Civil Service. No Ministry of Justice exists or is likely ever to be created in Great Britain. Surely the medical profession could regulate a new system of public health very much as the judges manage their affairs. The function of the State and of its various ministries would merely be to provide the funds necessary and then to efface themselves as rapidly and completely as possible. Intimately connected with the creation and regulation of a new system of public health is the reorganization of medical education and training, and the automatic elimination of unsuitable candidates for what amounts to a new profession. Once preventive medicine gets under way fewer and fewer doctors will be needed: the standards for admission will automatically rise. In this way the dictum of Alexis Carrel -- the best way of increasing the intelligence of scientists is to reduce their number -- can be extended still further. Soon the perfect instrument for the study of health and the reduction of disease will become available. It will be a natural offshoot of the new system.

But what of the intervening period that will be necessary while the new weapon is being forged? We cannot change over suddenly from disease to health; there will be a long time-lag before the old order can yield to new. Two systems must, therefore, exist for a time alongside one another. The old will undergo a natural liquidation; the new will grow from strength to strength.

But while no effective system of public health yet exists, nevertheless there has been progress. The pioneers in the medical profession itself, such as the Cheshire panel doctors and the creators of the Peckham Health Centre, have already blazed the trail. That they have done so speaks volumes for what the profession can and will do in the future. It furnishes the best possible reply to those who say that our doctors think more about money than they do about their work. This I know from long experience and many contacts with medical men all over the world and in many countries to be entirely devoid of truth.

In 1939, in Chapter XII of An Agricultural Testament, I summed up the evidence then available for the thesis that soil fertility is the real basis of public health, and in this account dealt with the Medical Testament of the Cheshire doctors and with the work already accomplished at the Peckham Health Centre. The reader is referred to this account and also to Chapter VII of Lady Eve Balfour's The Living Soil, first published in 1943, in which further evidence is set out in detail. All that is needed now is to emphasize the significance of a few of the older investigations and to describe some of the still more recent results.

Perhaps the most significant of the first set of examples which supported the view that soil fertility is the real basis of public health is that of the people of the Hunza valley to the north of Kashmir in the heart of the Karakoram Mountains with Afghanistan on the west, the Russian Pamirs on the north, and Chinese Turkestan on the east. Several accounts of the remarkable health of this ancient people have been published based largely on the observations of McCarrison, who at one time was Medical Officer to the Gilgit Agency. In his Mellon lecture delivered at Pittsburgh in 1921 on "Faulty Food in Relation to Gastro-Intestinal Disorder" he referred to the remarkable health of the Hunzas in the following words:

"During the period of my association with these people I never saw a case of asthenic dyspepsia, of gastric or duodenal ulcer, of appendicitis, of mucous collitis, of cancer... Among these people the abdomen oversensitive to nerve impressions, to fatigue, anxiety, or cold was unknown. Indeed their buoyant abdominal health has, since my return to the West, provided a remarkable contrast with the dyspeptic and colonic lamentations of our highly civilized communities."

The remarkable health of these people is one of the consequences of their agriculture, in which the law of return is scrupulously obeyed. All their vegetable, animal, and human wastes are carefully returned to the soil of the irrigated terraces which produce the grain, fruit, and vegetables which feed them. But there is another replacement in addition to the organic factor. The irrigation water used on these terraced fields comes from the Ultor glacier and is rich in silt. In this way the mineral constituents of the soil are constantly being replaced. How far is the health of these people due to this additional factor? It is impossible to say at the moment. But a growing body of evidence is coming forward in support of the view that to obtain the very best results we must replace simultaneously the organic and the mineral portions of the soil. If this should prove to be a general principle, it would help to explain the remarkable health and endurance of many of the hill tribes to the west and north of India where something approaching the Hunza standard is the general rule. In any future investigation of the need for replacing the minerals of the soil Hunzaland is the ideal starting point, as it is a ready-made control station for such studies. Readers interested in this people should begin with "The People of the Hunza Valley", which has just been published as a supplement to No. 9 of the News-Letter on Compost (June 1944).

The second of the older examples I should like to comment on relates to the labour force employed by the Public Health Department of Singapore. The results are given in the following letter from the Chief Health Officer, Dr. J. W. Scharff, to the Editor of the News-Letter on Compost. It appeared in the issue of October 1942 (No. 4):

This interesting nutrition experiment was interrupted by the fall of Singapore. Fortunately Dr. Scharff managed to escape on the last minesweeper which left the fortress and in due course reached England, where he at once resumed his activities on the relation between soil fertility, nutrition, and health -- at first in connection with the pig clubs in the London area, and afterwards as a Colonel in the R.A.M.C. at the military camps near Aldershot. He intends, on his return to his old post at Singapore, to continue the work outlined above. His work near Aldershot is being developed with great success by his successor, Major W. H. Giffard.

The value of the above example of the connection between soil fertility and health lies in its simplicity and in the ease with which it can be copied by many employers of labour in the tropics. One such large-scale example in Rhodesia has recently been referred to in the House of Lords by Lord Geddes as follows:

"In 1924 or 1925, when I returned from being on duty in the United States of America for four years, I was asked by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Baldwin as he then was, to see what I could do in connection with the supply of copper for this country. It seems to be a far cry from soil health to copper, but as a matter of fact the nation would not be getting its copper to-day unless somewhere in the back of my mind had been the fact that soil health was what made health. Because the copper that we had to get hold of was in Northern Rhodesia. It was the only place in the sterling area where there were known deposits of copper. It was not very well known, but copper was known to be there because it appeared in native use, and we had to get a copper reserve in order that we might in this country be in a position to defend ourselves, because copper is extraordinarily important in connection with war preparations. The country in which that copper existed was in large parts depopulated. There was no one living there, not even Africans, because of sleeping sickness, malaria and all the range of tropical diseases which make some of the great forest areas in the heart of the tropics impossible for human life. We started in, and the greatest medical problem that I have ever known was the opening up of the Copper Belt in Northern Rhodesia -- probably the greatest medical problem of our time.

"There are several branches of medicine. There is curative medicine, which divides itself into research into the nature of diseases, and the other part of curative medicine, the care of sick people; there is preventive medicine, which deals with all the problems of keeping a great community healthy; there is tropical medicine, which is really a spawn of zoology -- it is rather making a study of the wild animals that live in the country, even though they are small. And then there is creative medicine, and creative medicine is a thing that very few people know anything about at all. In going into Northern Rhodesia we had to use all the forms of medicine in order that we could get in. A country that has been depopulated by the virulence of the diseases there is not an easy country to get people of another race into and to keep them in a good state of health. I shall not bore your Lordships with the various steps taken during the fifteen years that followed, but I will tell you this. The curative medicine was just the ordinary sort of curative medicine of Harley Street or elsewhere. It was interesting, but of very much less interest than the other. Preventive medicine dealt with the ordinary problems of public health in a community. As to tropical medicine, the School of Tropical Diseases helped us and we found out a lot of things ourselves. Creative medicine -- what did we base that on? On the health of the food; and my noble friend Lord Bledisloe can tell you that our idea of how to keep people healthy there is that we give them food grown on rich humus soil with plenty of life in it.

"What have we done? What have the men who were there done? I do not want to take any credit for myself -- I was only chairman of the company. The people who fought the thing through were the doctors and the agriculturists on the spot -- everybody there. My job was simply to see that they were not interfered with by short-sighted economy. They have beaten back disease, and turned that part of Northern Rhodesia into what is a health resort. It is a most extraordinary phenomenon. The positive health of these people is based on food. This group of facts provide evidence tending in a definite direction. They show the importance of what Lord Teviot has brought before your Lordships, and they show it in a way, I believe, that places the truth of his contention on a secure basis -- that food is the basis of health, but it is not the only basis."

In the same speech Lord Geddes referred to the health of the people of Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is a relatively small community, made up almost entirely of the descendants of western European stocks (Scots 44 per cent, English 21 per cent, Irish and French 35 per cent). "There we have a very high standard of health, an extraordinarily vigorous, active population and no fall whatever in the birth rate. It is the only social organization composed of western Europeans which has not shown in the last fifty years a really sharp fall in the birth rate." The population is composed of fishermen, farmers, and of craftsmen engaged in rural trades. There are no great cities. The farming is mixed, little artificials are used, and the land is kept fertile by means of muck and the harvest of the sea. (Parliamentary Debates, House of Lords, Vol. 129, No. 98, 26th October 1943.)

Details of these two cases -- the Rhodesian Copper Mines and Prince Edward Island -- have been given in full for two reasons. They are of the greatest interest and value in themselves: they suggest the need for a further detailed description, if possible carried out by an apostle of preventive medicine. If a report could be drawn up on both these examples, the man in the street interested would be provided with definite cases of the way soil fertility and health are influencing one another.

A third little-known example is provided by St. Martin's School, Sidmouth, where for many years the vegetables and fruit needed in the school were raised from fertile soil. The results obtained are summed up in the following letter dated 24th November 1943 from the head master, the Rev. W. S. Airy:

"When I opened a preparatory school at Sidmouth in 1914, I was fortunate in finding a residence equipped with one acre of vegetable garden and another of fruit trees, together with the guidance of a wise and gifted gardener. From the day I came, no type of artificial manure or fertilizer has been known on the premises. Our soil, which has always been dressed annually with some ten or twelve tons of farmyard manure, the contents of poultry houses in the grounds, and two compost heaps, enjoys immunity from insect pests and disease.

"From 1914 to 1941, when war conditions compelled us to give up boarders, all boys were daily supplied with an abundance of fruit and vegetables; also with lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, and tomatoes in season. They were provided with savoys, cauliflowers, beet, onions, peas, beans, parsnips, asparagus, etc., which all flourished in perfect condition. Our exceptional health record has been chiefly due to the school menu. I firmly believe that this would have proved impossible, had not the soil been maintained in a superlative state of fertility by means of compost beds and farmyard manure. Epidemics were unknown during the last fifteen years. We had many lads who came to us as weaklings and left hearty and robust; they never looked back in point of health, and are now playing a prominent part in the world crusade of to-day. It has always been my conviction that health, strength, and self-reliance are mainly dependent upon the quality of feeding in preparatory schools at the critical period between nine and fourteen years."

A fourth example is that of St. Columba's College, Rathfarnham, near Dublin, an illustrated account of which was published in the issue of Sport and Country of 17th March 1944. This is a somewhat complete example The boys of this college in their spare time are doing a good deal of the manual work of a farm of some 200 acres, fifty acres of which are under cultivation, where most of their food is grown by means of compost made on the spot from animal and vegetable residues. This boy labour is voluntary and supplements that of a paid staff of experienced land workers. Produce is sold by the farm to the college at market rates, and in this way the farm has been able to pay its way. There is no doubt that the experiment has been of immediate practical value in helping to solve the wartime difficulties of catering. The health of the community generally has been unusually good, and the work and games have been continued with additional zest. The current work on the farm and the biological teaching have been made to supplement one another. The medical officer of the college is now preparing an account of this interesting experiment from the health point of view.

A fifth example -- of factory canteen meals of the right standard -- must be quoted. This has been provided by the Co-operative Wholesale Society's bacon factory at Winsford in Cheshire. These pioneering canteen meals at Winsford are the result of the interest of the manager, Mr. George Wood, in nutritional problems. The factory is a modern one and at the beginning was surrounded by an area of waste land which has been transformed into a model vegetable garden by means of compost made partly from the wastes of the factory. The potatoes and other vegetables needed in the canteen meals are grown on this land. The potatoes are cooked in their skins, and the whole of the tuber is eaten. The area under cultivation is being increased and soon it will be possible to provide all the food needed for the canteen meals from fertile soil. Only whole-wheat bread is provided. Already the health, efficiency, and well-being of the labour force has markedly improved. The output of work has increased; absenteeism has been notably reduced. Here is an example of what can be accomplished for his workers by a manager with vision and enterprise at no cost to the undertaking, as such factory meals pay their way. The workers benefit by excellent meals, far more nutritious and far cheaper than they can obtain elsewhere. The factory benefits by better and more willing work, by the growth of real esprit de corps, and by a marked reduction in ill health. Work begins to go with a swing once the food of the workers comes to them fresh from soil in good fettle. Here is a simple method of dealing with industrial fatigue and of bringing capital and labour into a similar happy partnership to that which has long existed between any good farmer and his team of horses.

A sixth example comes from New Zealand, where the deterioration in the health and physique of the population has followed closely on the heels of soil exploitation. In The Living Soil Lady Eve Balfour has dealt with this case in full. The general health status of the population will be clear from the following extract taken from her book (p. 131):

"Of every hundred children who enter New Zealand schools, fifteen show signs of needing medical attention, fifteen need observation, many show signs of nose and throat trouble, and at least two-thirds have dental caries. In this connection, the New Zealand Ministry of Health has published the fact that 30 per cent of all pre-school children suffer from nose and throat troubles, 23 per cent suffer from gland troubles, and 2 per cent have some form of lung trouble. The official figures for illnesses among children at school are: 5 per cent suffering from enlarged glands; 15 per cent suffering from incipient goitre; 15 per cent suffering from enlarged tonsils; 32 per cent suffering from dental caries; and 66 per cent suffering from other physical defects."

At this point Dr. G. B. Chapman comes into this dismal picture. In 1936 he set in motion a feeding experiment at the Mount Albert Grammar School at Auckland. The fruit and vegetables needed by some sixty boys, teachers, and staff were grown on humus-filled soil. The results are reported by the Matron in the following words:

"The first thing to be noted during the twelve months following the change- over to garden produce grown from our humus-treated soil was the declining catarrhal condition among the boys. Catarrh had previously been general and, in some cases, very bad among the boys. In specific cases the elimination was complete. There was also a very marked decline in colds and influenza. Colds are now rare and any cases of influenza very mild. Coming to the 1938 measles epidemic, which was universal in New Zealand, the new boys suffered the more acute form of attack; while the boys who had been at the hostel for a year or more sustained the milder attacks, with a much more rapid convalescence.

"During the past three years there has been a marked physical growth and development during terms of heavy school work and sport. In some cases boys go through a period of indisposition for several weeks after entering the hostel. This would appear to indicate that the method of feeding causes a certain detoxication period, which, when cleared up, does not return. Excellent health gradually ensues in all cases, and is maintained. There are fewer accidents, particularly in the football season, which would possibly indicate that the foods in use contain the optimum amount of minerals and vitamins, thus ensuring a full development of bone and muscle and a greater resiliency to fracture and sprains. The satisfactory physical condition described is maintained during periods of rapid growth and the development of mind and body. Constipation and bilious attacks are rare. Skins are clear and healthy, while the boys are unceasingly active and virile.

"Since the change to naturally grown garden produce, the periodical reports in regard to the boys' dental condition have been more than gratifying."

The deterioration in the general health and well-being of the New Zealanders and the above timely intervention on the part of Dr. Chapman have been followed by a most interesting and promising development in the shape of a Compost Club, details of which are given in a later chapter (Chapter 13, New Zealand).

After this book had gone to press a significant report reached me from Mr. Brodie Carpenter, the dentist in charge of the teeth of some 97 girls and 137 boys at a boarding school in Middlesex, where during the present war great attention has been paid to the growing of the vegetables and salads on humus-filled soil without any help from artificial manures. A full report on the methods adopted in the raising of this produce, of the composition of the school meals and their effect on the teeth of the children appeared in the issue of The News-Letter on Compost of February 1945, pp. 21-2. In 1939 when the experiment started the standard of the teeth was distinctly poor. By 1942 a change began to take place: by May 1944 a vast improvement had occurred -- the general standard had gone up to good.

What is needed to bring home to the man in the street the supreme importance of soil fertility as the basis of the public health system of to- morrow are more and more examples of what a fertile soil can do. The type of examples needed will be clear from those already quoted. Boarding schools and colleges should produce at least their own vegetables and fruit from humus-filled soil. The labour difficulty will disappear the moment the teaching staff, the boys, the girls, and the students understand the importance of the question. This is proved by the example of St. Columba's College -- the Eton of Eire. The school gardens and canteen meals of our elementary schools can easily copy what has already been done at the Mount Albert School in New Zealand. Full details of the best way to grow and to cook vegetables raised in a school garden are to be found in Mr. F. C. King's book, The Compost Gardener (Titus Wilson & Son Ltd., Kendal). Factory canteen meals might with advantage copy what Mr. Wood has done at the bacon factory at Winsford in Cheshire.

But perhaps what would be the most telling example remains to be discussed. That seaside holiday resort which takes steps to have produced from fertile soil in the neighbourhood most of the food needed by the visitors would rapidly forge ahead and out-distance all competitors. Holiday-makers need rest, good air, and above all good food. If an autonomous community like the Isle of Man could become compost-minded and see to it that most of the food needed by the visitors was grown locally on fertile soil, it would rapidly become the most popular holiday resort in Great Britain. Steps could then be taken to provide the stream of satisfied visitors with details of how to get their own gardens and allotments into shape, so that the good work started in the Isle of Man could be continued till the time for the next seaside holiday came round.

Next: 11. The Nature of Disease

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