Tribute to an organic pioneer – Sir Albert Howard
Sir Albert Howard was an organic pioneer of considerable stature. Throughout his scientific and publishing career, Howard benefited significantly from opportunities of travel and the ability to observe practical applications and results from a diverse range of agricultural systems. It is well recognised that his scientific work and publications provide an inspiration for many contemporary individuals who continue to adapt and refine his principles. As its name would suggest, the organic movement is a dynamic and evolving one. This potential is captured in the best of Sir Howard’s work and helps to explain its ongoing popularity.
Born in England 1873, Howard was raised on his family’s rural estate. Formal education at Cambridge provided sufficient insights in botanical science to establish his initial field position in the West Indies (1899-1902). His role was to investigate tropical plant diseases and to share this information with producers and instructors at local teaching institutions. Upon returning to England, he lectured at the South-Eastern Agricultural College (1903-1905). This prepared Howard for an extended field visit to India, where he commenced work as an Economic Botanist. Throughout his time abroad (1905-1931), Howard directed several agricultural centres and initiated the body of research which contributed to his theoretical analyses and publishing success.
One of Howard’s most popular and accessible works, An Agricultural Testament, was first published in 1940. In this, he outlines his argument for natural farming techniques where the emphasis is placed upon raising mixed crops without recourse to artificial fertilisers. Instead of establishing dependence on external inputs, the farmer is advised to actively replenish soils through the conversion of mixed vegetable and animal waste. The foundation for these ideas was established in rural India where native farmers depended upon sophisticated composting techniques to improve the fertility and health of their soils.
Despite his avoidance of the term “organic” to describe these principles, Howard was among the first to suggest that plants grown in chemically fertilized soils were lacking in health and vigor. The implications of this statement were not welcomed by adherents of the conventional or chemical based approaches to agriculture. While sometimes portrayed as the conflict between alternative agricultural theories, much of the hostility was generated through the influence of vested economic and political interest. From relatively obscure origins, the industrial manufacturers of chemical products had expanded rapidly as a consequence of government support and the technological advancements associated with weaponry development.
In collaboration with the American publisher J.I. Rodale, Sir Albert Howard was comfortable to present his research and analyses as an alternative to the dominant agricultural establishment. As the levels of conservative vitriol against his ideas mounted, Howard became increasingly politicised. The War in the Soil was published in 1946 and opened with a rebuke against the profiteers who had separated mankind from its birthright of fertile soils and fresh, uncontaminated foods. Sir Albert Howard died in England in 1947 after establishing himself as a true pioneer of the organic movement.