Today organic farming is touted across the globe as a better alternative to industrial agriculture. The latter depletes soil fertility, harms the ecological networks, and poses threats to human and animal health. Even though the organic agriculture movement is becoming increasingly popular, few would bother to know the forefathers of this movement.
In today’s column, let’s recall the abiding contributions of three unsung pioneers of organic farming.
What is organic farming?
Organic farming is a blend of traditional wisdom and modern scientific practice that promotes sustainable agriculture which can generate healthy food, healthy soils, healthy plants and healthy environment along with crop productivity. Organic agriculture does not use harmful synthetic agrochemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. It promotes the use of biological fertilizers and management practices such as cover cropping and crop rotation to improve soil quality and build soil organic matter.
Improved soil organic matter enhances soil’s capacity to retain water, reducing the impacts of droughts and floods. It also helps improve soil’s capacity for sequestering carbon and other nutrients, leading to production of healthy crops that can better ward off insects and diseases. Organic farming also encourages biological pest control methods instead of toxic pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides.
History of organic farming
The concepts of organic agriculture were developed in the early 1900s mainly by Sir Albert Howard and his two wives: Gabriel and Louise Howard. Other pioneers included F. H. King, Rudolf Steiner and some other agricultural scientists. These trailblazers believed that the use of animal manures (often turned into compost), cover crops, crop rotation, and biological pest control methods resulted in a more sustainable farming system.
Organic farming practices were further promoted by many proponents including J. I. Rodale and his son, Robert Rodale in the 1940s and onwards. The father-son duo also published several magazines and texts on organic farming. The demand for organic food was further stimulated by the publication of Silent Spring, a pathbreaking book by Rachel Carson, documenting the harmful effects of pesticides.
Pioneers of organic agriculture
As mentioned earlier, the organic farming movement was pioneered by the Howards: Dr Albert Howard, Gabrielle Howard, and Louise Howard. In 1905, the government of British India hired Albert and, shortly after, Gabrielle as economic botanists. They initially worked at the agricultural research station in Pusa, Bihar where they developed new varieties of wheat. At the same time, the couple started wondering how poor farmers in India who could not afford the expensive fertilizers and pesticides could improve crop production and control plant diseases using natural methods.
Albert later got his own research centre at Indore, Madhya Pradesh, where he developed a scientific method of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere through bacteria involved in decomposition of organic matter in a compost pile. The composting method introduced there is known as “The Indore Method.” Treating the soil with this compost rejuvenated the soil humus and enabled plant roots to absorb water and vital nutrients from the soil.
After Gabrielle prematurely died of cancer in 1930, Albert retired to England. Gabrielle has a sister named Louise, who had also just retired as an agricultural advisor for the League of Nations in Geneva. After lengthy discussions of Albert with Louise, they agreed that what worked in India could work for the whole world. They worked together on a new book entitled The Waste Products of Agriculture, which was eventually published in 1931.
Albert and Louise got married a few years after the death of Gabrielle. Louise ignited Albert’s vision for organic agriculture into a powerful book called An Agricultural Testament (1940). The Testament soon became a manifesto for the world-wide movement for organic farming.
Albert died in 1947 and Louise became the driving force for the organic farming movement. Along with the Soil Association, UK, and activists such as E F Schumacher; Louise Howard and other pioneers established a crucial bridge between the early conservation movement and the modern environmental movement that emerged in the 1970s.
Louise sustained a global network of organic farming activists who also cried for clean air and water, protection of wildlife, and the urgent need for reducing the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides such as DDT.
Though Louise died in 1969, and is largely unsung, future historians of scientific agriculture would place her on the same pedestal as a woman pioneer of the modern environmental movement as Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring.
Integrating scientific agriculture with traditional farming wisdom
From the 1980s onwards, organic farming turned into a global movement from the incremental initiatives of gardeners, small farmers, and small markets.
Organic agriculture sprang from the integration of the mind of science with the heart of traditional wisdom.
Organic farming is poised to expand further in the future. The movement conveys the lesson that science must connect with deeply held values. The Howards successfully modernised the traditional practices of peasant farmers who held a profound connection to the land and who preserved and handed down traditions of farming and animal husbandry from generations of peasant farmers in India, Europe, and China.
The Howards blazed a trail for the future of agriculture that integrated science, ecology, and tradition; one sector strengthening the others!