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

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

Chapter 14
The Reception of the Indore Process by the Scientists

Before leaving India in April 1931 arrangements were made to supply the Indian Central Cotton Committee with a sufficient number of copies of The Waste Products of Agriculture: Their Utilization as Humus, so that they could get composting taken up in all the cotton-growing areas without delay. After the book appeared the reviewers all over the world wrote many favourable and even enthusiastic notices, all of which were duly printed. A number of printed slips describing the contents and purpose of the book were then sent to most of the agricultural investigators of the Empire. Ample publicity was in these ways secured. The outcome was interesting and illuminating.

The reception of the Indore Process and its various implications by the experiment station workers engaged on cotton problems proved to be a foretaste of what was to follow. It was, with few exceptions, definitely hostile and even obstructive, largely because the method called in question the soundness of the two main lines of work on cotton -- the improvement of the yield and quality of the fibre by plant breeding methods alone, and the control of cotton diseases by direct assault. If the claims of humus and of soil fertility proved to be well founded, it was obvious that this factor would influence the yield much more than a new variety or anything an entomologist or a mycologist could achieve. Besides, both these devices -- plant breeding and pest control -- would have to wait till the land was got into good heart and maintained in this condition, for the simple reason that any new variety would have to suit a new set of soil conditions, and the inroads of pests might either be prevented or at least reduced by a fertile soil. Further, the current work on chemical fertilizers would have to be postponed till the full effects of a humus-filled soil had been ascertained. The production of compost on a large scale might, therefore, prove to be revolutionary and a positive danger to the structure and perhaps to the very existence of a research organization based on the piecemeal application of the separate sciences to a complex and many-sided biological problem like the production of cotton. Two courses were obviously open to the research workers on cotton: (1) they might save the organization and their own immediate interests by sabotaging the humus idea, or (2) they could give it a square deal and, if it proved successful, could then deal with the new situation from the point of view of the interests of the cotton growers. The vast majority adopted the former course. A few, however, who were engaged in the practical side of cotton growing, took steps to get first-hand experience of humus manufacture and of its effects on the soil and on the cotton crop.

The research workers on most other crops all over the Empire took a similar hostile view and were naturally supported and sustained in their opposition by vested interests like the manufacturers and distributors of artificial manures and poison sprays who were, of course, anxious to preserve and even expand a profitable business. It has been said that even the principle of gravitation would have had a hard row to hoe, had it in any manner stood in the way of the pursuit of profit and the operations of Big Business.

A few examples of the kind of opposition displayed by the laboratory workers and the way in which they were overcome may be quoted. The first of these developed when the tea planters of India and Ceylon began to make compost.

The story of the adoption of the Indore Process by the tea industry has already been told (Chapter 8, Tea) with the exception of an account of the consistent opposition of the tea experiment stations in India and Ceylon to the compost idea. The methods adopted to discredit humus were two.

At first the tea industry was warned that composting was uneconomic and that the game was not worth the candle. Figures were published in Ceylon showing the extra staff needed for the work and the output that could be expected. This put the cost per ton somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten rupees. But a large number of tea gardens were already making first-class compost at less than a fifth of this extravagant estimate, which was based not on actual experience, but on paper calculations. Some of the most important of the tea groups even came to the conclusion that composting cost nothing, as no extra labour or expense was involved because the conversion of wastes into humus was a mere matter of using the existing labour force to the best advantage.

The second line of attack was based on a comparison of the yields of the small plots of the tea experiment station in Assam, where the use of compost and sulphate of ammonia were compared. Results were obtained which appeared to demolish the Indore Process altogether. But these yields, obtained under unnatural conditions on small pocket handkerchiefs of tea, firmly fixed in a straitjacket as it were, and not provided with shade trees, were flatly contradicted by the large-scale results obtained on many tea gardens. The contest was at its peak when I passed through Calcutta at the end of 1937, when one of the directors of the largest group of tea companies asked me to call upon him. In our conversation reference was made to an abusive article written by one of the advocates of artificials in a periodical devoted to tea which had just appeared in Calcutta, and I was asked if I had seen it. As a matter of fact I had not, but several correspondents had told me of its contents. I was then assured: (1) that no change would be made in the policy of this group which intended to stick to humus, and (2) that orders had already been given that not a single ounce of sulphate of ammonia was to be purchased in future. The controversy was closed by the war which sadly interfered with the import of chemical manures.

These incidents are mentioned to show that the difficulties and delays in getting the law of return adopted in tea were due mainly not to the tea industry, but to advice based on paper calculations and on the yield of small plots growing under unnatural conditions.

One of the best examples in composting I saw in the course of a visit to tea estates in India and Ceylon in 1937-8 was Gandrapara, a garden on the alluvial soils of the Dooars, where excellent management assisted by humus has provided the industry with a safe example to copy. A detailed account of composting on this estate is given in Appendix A, from which it will be seen that the yield of tea has gone up by 50 per cent since the time of my visit in 1937. The results obtained illustrate the influence of good farming methods on quality. Gandrapara has moved out of its class and has yielded produce superior to that usual on the soils of this locality.

The next attempt to discredit humus occurred in connection with a project to compost the old hop bines and string on a large garden in Sussex, which had been placed at my disposal by the directorate on condition that I could secure the interest and support of the manager. But the moment this project became known in south-east England it was opposed by the specialists concerned with disease, who argued that my project would mean the destruction of the fine property to which so many years of work had been devoted. To counteract these influences a meeting had to be arranged at East Malling with the specialists of the south-eastern counties and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture for a discussion on disease: in all some fifty people, almost al] hostile to my ideas, took part. I asked the late Professor H. E. Armstrong to accompany me and to observe the proceedings. To give my opponents every chance I prepared a short synopsis of my views and asked the secretary to distribute copies before the meeting. The discussion lasted all day. It was obvious that my specialist opponents, with one or two exceptions, were mere laboratory hermits who had never mastered the art of agriculture, had never grown a crop, and had never taken their own advice about remedies before writing about them. Further, their experience of disease was limited to the conditions of a single island in the North Sea -- Great Britain. Only one had visited that cradle of agriculture -- the Far East. I had no difficulty in pulverizing the objections these specialists advanced to my thesis that insects and fungi are not the real cause of disease and that pests must be carefully treasured, because they are Nature's censors and our real professors of agriculture. The results of this meeting soon became known. The local opposition to my proposals to convert hop string and hop bine into humus melted away and the project proved to be a great success. Just before the present war about 10,000 tons of finished humus a year were made on this hop garden from the following raw materials -- pulverized town wastes which had to be railed from Southwark to Bodiam, all the wastes of the hops including hop bine and hop string, and every other vegetable and animal waste that could be collected locally. What was interesting was that the all-in cost of preparing and distributing the compost was less than would have been spent on an equivalent dressing of artificials. What was still more important than the saving of money was the beneficial result of the compost on the texture and free working of the heavy soil and on the yield and quality of the hops.

An earlier encounter with the research organization took place at Cambridge towards the end of 1935, when I was invited by the students of the School of Agriculture to address them. I selected as my subject "The Manufacture of Humus by the Indore Method" and distributed printed copies of the gist of my remarks, so that a lively discussion could follow the lecture. Practically the whole of the staff of the Cambridge School of Agriculture attended and an exciting debate followed the lecture. It was an excellent opportunity of trying my medicine on a new dog -- in this case, the men engaged in teaching and research. I obtained little or no support for my views from the teachers: if anything, the opposition on the part of the representatives of chemistry, plant breeding, and vegetable pathology was even more pronounced than later at East Malling. The students, however, were not only deeply interested in the subject, but vastly amused at finding their teachers on the defensive and vainly endeavouring to bolster up the tottering pillars supporting their temple. Here again I was amazed by the limited knowledge and experience of the world's agriculture disclosed by this debate. I felt I was dealing with beginners and that some of the arguments put forward could almost be described as the impertinences of ignorance. It was obvious from this meeting that little or no support for organic farming would be obtained from the agricultural colleges and research institutes of Great Britain.

The fourth example of opposition came from the agricultural chemists in the course of the discussion of a paper I read to the Farmers' Club on 1st February 1937 on "The Restoration and Maintenance of Fertility". Representatives of the experiment stations and of the artificial manure industry poured ridicule on my ideas and suggested that they lacked the conventional support of the small plot and the approval of the statisticians. In winding up the debate, I stated that I did not intend to devote any time to a detailed reply to these superficial criticisms, but would shortly have my answer thereto written on the land itself. This was done two years later by the late Sir Bernard Greenwell in one of the most outstanding papers ever read to the Farmers' Club. His large-scale results more than confirmed my paper of two years before. The effect of freshly prepared humus was written by one of the leading agriculturists of the country both on the livestock and on two of his well farmed estates. Although invited to the discussion on Sir Bernard's paper, the representatives of the experiment stations and of the artificial manure interests had no stomach for the fight and did not attend to hear their previous criticisms demolished by the one unanswerable argument -- success.

A number of other similar clashes could be quoted, but they would only confirm what has been stated above. These reconnaissances were all carried out for a very obvious purpose -- to ascertain the reaction of agricultural teaching and research to the idea that soil fertility is the basis of health in soil, crops, livestock, and mankind. The results showed that in the humus campaign already in progress little assistance could be expected from the official organization. At the same time, it was obvious that nothing need be feared from a body of men engaged on the research side in learning more and more about less and less, and on the teaching side in endeavouring to instil in the rising generation a number of unsound principles based on obsolete methods of investigation. I regretfully came to the conclusion that most of the money devoted by the State to further agriculture by means of the experiment station and the agricultural college has only succeeded in creating an effective bar to all progress and to all new ideas.

The controversy has continued without intermission. Ample space was devoted in a previous chapter (Chapter 6, The Intrusion of Science) to considering the general trend of the scientific researches devoted to agriculture and to analysing where, in my opinion, they have ceased to be effective. The special hostility shown to my own ideas is scarcely surprising and would not be worth special attention here, were it not that the whole vast and expensive machinery of agricultural research is being used to bolster up official authority in this country to deny to the public that freedom of choice which alone can secure progress. Fortified by the findings of Rothamsted and supported by the teachings of the agricultural colleges, the Ministry of Agriculture takes the line that the soil can be kept in good heart by applying still more artificial manures supplemented by the organic matter left by the temporary ley and the dwindling supplies of farmyard manure: the war situation is used to urge this policy on the country.

In thus advocating the temporary ley and in admitting the usefulness of organic matter, my opponents have already travelled a long way from their original point of view. Facts have been too much for them. In refusing to concede the necessity for a well considered national manurial programme based on proper principles, they are still showing themselves to be only tinkerers at the subject -- nowhere have I been able to induce them to accept my challenge, take a couple of farms, farm one with artificials, the other on organic principles, and watch the results: nor has any concession been made to my contention that the only satisfactory test of improved pastures, etc., is to ask the animal. Neither of these ideas has been received with any favour whatever. Instead, pen is put to paper to prove the efficacy, the benefit, and the absolute need for artificial manures. The latest typical pronouncement is a long reasoned statement by Dr. A. H. Bunting in Country Life of 25th February 1944. (Reprinted, together with my reply in the same journal on 12th May 1944, in the News-Letter on Compost of June 1944.) The statement shows rather exactly the present stage of the controversy about artificial manures and is, therefore, worth analysing.

The gist of Dr. Bunting's case for artificials is given in the two following statements:

  1. "The nutrients ordinarily present in the soil are inadequate for continuous intensive production, since the soil is quite unable to supply nutrients at the rate and in the total quantities needed. While it is true that organic manures of various types do contain considerable amounts of these inorganic nutrients, their use cannot supply all that is required on a farm unless the necessary amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are introduced from outside, as in cattle feeding stuffs in certain types of mixed farming. Further, the addition of the complex mixture of nutrients present in such manures gives no possibility of control of the balance of manuring which is so important in practice."
  2. "The substances contained in these inorganic fertilizers are, of course, normal constituents of all fertile soils. The importance of the inorganic additions is that they significantly increase the quantities available as distinct from total nutrients, a considerable proportion of which are combined in such a way that they are only slowly available to the plant."

If we analyse these two statements which amount to a heavy indictment of Nature's methods, the argument in favour of artificials falls into three parts: (a) Nature does not supply enough of the inorganic nutrients -- they must be supplemented "from outside"; (b) the plant nutrients are not provided by Nature in easily ascertainable quantities and therefore cannot be controlled, and (c) Nature is too slow in her operations to meet present- day needs.

These arguments accuse Nature of being too mean, too inexact, and too slow!!

The accusation of meanness lands Dr. Bunting into a difficult position. His suggestion for correcting Nature is a simple one: let us add by our own efforts those extra quantities of food materials which her niggardliness refuses to provide: in this way we shall secure the returns from the soil we desire. These extra quantities are to be brought in "from outside" and he instances feeding stuffs for cattle. But this only amounts to a transfer of natural fertility from one part of the earth to another with no provision for the return of wastes to the land. It is exploitation pure and simple -- one of those short-sighted and superficial devices dear to the bandit -- in other words, it is the absurdity of folly.

The second argument is that the food materials for the plant supplied by Nature are not provided in easily ascertainable quantities and therefore cannot be "controlled". This is true. But when we attempt to determine these quantities by chemical analysis, the result is failure because, like a census of the population, it only catches the truth at one moment and would have to be endlessly repeated for each small field without pause or intermission if a really exact picture of the state of the soil is to be obtained. Soil analyses have all the disadvantages which follow the application of a static instrument to a dynamic and living system. This being so, the hope that the needs of the plant can be ascertained and then made good is a chimera: the idea that exact weighments of this and that food material can help is to ignore the way Nature acts, to forget the living processes by which the huge reserves in any fertile soil are made available for crops by the work of the soil population. To ignore all this and to talk of a balanced manurial programme is the height of short-sighted folly.

The last argument suggests that Nature is too slow. That accusation is without foundation in all cases where the law of return is faithfully followed. It only holds for worn-out land, where the life of the soil has been starved and the land deprived of its manurial rights. There is no slowness to be seen in the way a well farmed area sets about the growing of a crop. It is an interesting sidelight on Dr. Bunting's allegation that Mr. F. C. King of Levens Hall states that in his experience one of the advantages of well composted land in market gardening operations is that an extra crop per year can be got off the ground: the plants "get away" so much more quickly.

In the course of developing his case Dr. Bunting makes a number of interesting and important concessions. He agrees that the maintenance of the crumb structure of the soil is vital, that the soil needs a constant supply of oxygen, as well as of organic matter. He also makes two confessions -- that artificials can be abused, and that at Woburn, a branch of Rothamsted, continuous dressings of sulphate of ammonia have been disastrous. His statement, however, leaves much to be desired on the biological processes going on in the soil, on the importance of quality in crop production, and on the power of the crop to resist disease. Moreover, he has completely ignored the significance of the mycorrhizal association.

In my answer I gave a few examples of the long-term results of artificial manures and cited the case of the sugar industry in Barbados, where of recent years the replacement of organic manure by artificials has led to the virtual collapse of the island through disease and to a decision to re- introduce mixed farming. Another example given was the potato industry of South Lincolnshire, now well on the way to its Tannenberg as a result of the inordinate use of artificials and the reduction in the head of livestock. It is not necessary again to set forth my case -- the pages of this book have done so. More especially will a perusal of the examples cited in Appendices A, B, and D completely demolish the case for artificials. Chemicals give increased yields only on infertile or badly farmed land. When these areas are got into first-class condition by means of freshly prepared humus, no artificials are needed. The increased soil population which develops as a result of a humus-filled soil provides the crop with everything it needs.

By 1940 I had come to the conclusion that "the slow poisoning of the life of the soil by artificial manures is one of the greatest calamities that has befallen agriculture and mankind". Nothing has shaken this conviction. It is amazing that the artificial manure interests have not come forward to finance the large-scale trials Lord Teviot and his supporters have pressed for in a recent parliamentary debate. If they are sure of their ground and confident of the final results, what better and cheaper advertisement for artificials could be devised? If the Ministry of Agriculture really believes in its grow-more-food campaign, why did the Minister not move heaven and earth to accept the challenge to his policy of food production and of the present-day organization of agricultural research and teaching? Why not silence these very tiresome and very persistent advocates of organic farming once and for all? Refusal to join battle cannot be due to lack of money on the part of the vested interests and of the State. Is the reason for avoiding the fight to be found in another direction altogether -- to fear of the verdict of Mother Earth?

Next: 15. A Final Survey

Back to Contents

To Albert Howard review and index

Back to Small Farms Library index

Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles

Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects 
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations | Contact us