Albert Howard was a farmer’s son. He would become a famous agricultural scientist, with the resonant title of Imperial Economic Botanist, and be knighted, becoming Sir Albert, even to his wife in her biography of him. In the fiercely class conscious world of the British Empire he lived in, at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, he might have been forgiven for concealing his modest origins under his undeniable success.
But he didn’t. He was proud he came from a farming family, proud of his ability to handle livestock. He had a farmer’s practical ability to look at fields and see how things were growing there – really growing, not just the way his textbooks said they should. Which was why when he was posted to India in 1905, to the big new agricultural institute the British Raj had built at Pusa, Bihar (which would later get destroyed in an earthquake, and be recreated in Delhi, where it is still called the Pusa campus), where his job was to develop commercial crops for the Empire, he couldn’t help noticing the fields, not just in his institute, but in the farms beyond.
These fields were tended by the sort of uneducated peasants he was meant to be enlightening about modern agriculture. Their plots were too small and randomly cultivated. Instead of profitably growing a single crop on a large scale, they grew a muddle of grains, vegetables and commercial crops. They raised cattle there too, even though the modern thinking was to separate livestock from crop farming. And they didn’t use the new inorganic fertilisers based on industrially produced ammonia and nitrogen that were then the norm in the West, nor the chemical pesticides that reduced the loss to pests. These peasants had no idea of them, and anyway probably couldn’t afford them.
The agricultural authorities at that time simply ignored such farmers – as their successors in modern India still do. The assumption is that such marginal farmers have to modernise, or be driven out of business by farmers who do. But Howard had a farmer’s viewpoint which showed him that plants on these unscientific farms seemed to be doing rather better than his scientifically raised ones. They were vigorous and hardy, which seemed to help them ward off most pests. Their livestock too were healthier, which was proven during an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease when these cattle did much better than the pedigreed animals at his institute.
A more hubristic scientist would simply have ignored such oddities, but Howard started scientifically studying what those Indian farmers were doing and he became increasingly convinced that their traditional practices had merits that were being overlooked by modern agriculture of the kind he was supposed to be doing. These practices, as described, validated and further developed by Howard, were what would become the foundations of the modern organic farming movement.
Howard never used the word ‘organic’ himself, calling such methods ‘Nature’s farming’ in his book An Agricultural Testament, which must count as one of the most influential books ever to come from an Indian context. The ‘organic’ term is credited to Lord Northbourne, an English aristocrat and Olympic rower.
Howard tackled one of the central problems of Indian farmers – fertiliser. It was generally agreed that if inorganic options weren’t available, they should at least use the dung from their livestock. So if Indian farmers persisted in using cow dung for fuel, it was their folly.
Howard was more sympathetic to the farmers. He had actually got to know their lives and understood how few alternatives there were to dung as a fuel. Collecting dried leaves and wood, for example, was timeconsuming for the already burdened women.
Among Howard’s many unusual traits for his time was a profound appreciation of the value of women’s labour. His wife Gabrielle became a vital partner in his work, and he insisted she be titled Second Economic Botanist. After she died in 1930, he dedicated An Agricultural Testament to her with lines from Romeo and Juliet: “The Earth, that’s Nature’s Mother, is her tomb. . . ” (He then married her younger sister Louise, who seems to have been petrifyingly in awe of her brother-in-law and elder sister, and would dedicate her life to their legacy, writing a hugely respectful but rather dull memoir of their work in India).
Howard looked for alternatives to dung. He found it in all the wastes naturally generated by farming households. These could be collected and combined with the urine of farm animals, spread on straw, and this would serve a catalyst for the decomposition of the wastes into a form that could be spread in the fields and absorbed by plants. A large part of An Agricultural Testament consists of detailed descriptions of the creation of such composts, with scientific analysis of their value as fertiliser. What was important for him was that they were biological in origin, so they added to the living quality that he saw in soil.
INDIA: THE PERFECT PETRIDISH
This was not fanciful, because Howard had trained as a mycologist, a specialist in fungi, and he was aware of how fungal networks in the soil literally made it a living organism. India gave him not just the inspiration, but also the best means to test his theories. One of the advantages he had here was the wide range of climates and conditions present in the subcontinent. He could test crops all the way from Quetta, where he had a research station, to the plains on which Pusa was based, to all the range of agricultural research stations the Raj had established across India. Working across climates, he could speed up his research in ways he never could have in Europe.
But there was one problem. The British hadn’t expected Howard to go ‘native’, and become a profound critic of industrial-style agriculture. His position at Pusa got increasingly strained – Louise Howard writes, “he was accused of invading fields not his own”, which was, in fact, correct, since his holistic views didn’t recognise regular academic distinctions. But the British establishment could not appreciate this.
The Howards might have had to leave India and all their fieldwork, if another uniquely Indian option hadn’t appeared. The subcontinent offered an alternative to the Raj in the princely states and it was one of them, Indore, which came to the Howards’ rescue. The Maharaja offered to set up an Institute of Plant Industry which would be financed by the Indian Central Cotton Committee and contributions from 20 princely states in Central India and Rajputana, who would all benefit from it. By 1925, the Howards were installed there and in gratitude named their composting method the Indore process. One still comes across this term in organic farming manuals, and can only hope the Maharaja appreciated the state’s name being attached to what is essentially garbage processing.
Howard’s writings from that time (most of which were out of print for years, but are now available on websites like journeytoforever. org) give an idea of his holistic and humane views. For example, he examined agricultural labour, a vital issue, but one generally overlooked by scientists. Howard recognised that his systems depended on good labour, but this wasn’t easy to get in Indore where cotton mills offered alternative employment. In a paper he detailed ways to attract and keep good labour, by a combination of fair pay, flexible hours and good living conditions.
Howard even detailed the best ways to pay labour, emphasising that “payment is made in coin. . . and nothing whatever is done to influence the workers how they should spend their wages. ” This is reflected in the current argument that providing cash transfers rather than subsidised food in relief schemes is both more efficient and equitable, since it recognises the recipients as people in their own right, rather than as just passive beneficiaries.
An earlier initiative of Howard’s which may still be helping us today was in marketing of produce. Farmers might grow great crops, but this was useless unless they were conveyed to a market where they get a decent return. Howard felt that the excellent fruit he was growing in places like Quetta would do well in cities like Delhi, and that the newly created railways were the way to get them there in good shape. But packaging standards were poor resulting in lots of damaged fruit. The obvious solution was standardised returnable crates, but the Railways weren’t encouraging this since they got more by charging farmers for each parcel separately. Howard went to battle and finally got the Railways to accept the standard sized crates for fruit that are still in use today.
THE BIG PICTURE
Much more than merely organic farming, it was this ability to see agriculture in its totality – from workers to markets – that was unique about his vision (he also always gave his Indian assistants their due, for example, co-crediting Yashwant Wad, one of his principal assistants at Indore, in papers that they wrote). Despite Howard being seen as odd and eccentric by the British establishment, people were soon coming to Indore to see his Institute. One visitor was Mahatma Gandhi, who in 1935 accepted an invitation to a Hindi conference in Indore at least partly because he could also inspect the process, particularly because he felt it offered a solution to his long standing concern for hygienic disposal of human wastes.
This visit took place by the time Howard had retired. He went back to England in 1931 but it was only a change of base and the start of his campaign to impress upon the world his learnings from India. He started writing a series of books, starting with The Waste Products of Agriculture: their Utilization as Humus that Louise Howard described as “one last gift of his genius to the peoples of India”. In this and other books, culminating in An Agricultural Testament, he stepped up his attack on industrial agriculture.
Howard soon found followers. Lady Eve Balfour, another agriculturally inclined aristocrat, based her book The Living Soil on Howard’s theories and in 1946, a year before Howard’s death, she founded the Soil Association, the earliest and still one of the most influential organic farming promotion organisations. In the US, Howard’s work was read by J I Rodale, who would become the publisher of very successful health based magazines like Men’s Health. Rodale recalled that reading Howard’s work had the impact of being hit by “a ton of bricks” and he started Organic Gardening magazine, with Howard as an honorary editor.
People like Balfour and Rodale would take the organic farming movement forward after Howard’s death, sustaining it through long periods when it was seen as a pursuit for cranks or as something noble, but impractical. Today it is finally receiving its due, not just in the West, where it is now almost a mainstream form of agriculture, but in India as well. Organic food shops are proliferating and so is the number of people growing organic produce on their farms. Aamir Khan recently endorsed it on ‘Satyameva Jayate’, arguing that Indian agriculture had to move in the long term towards organic cultivation. In one of his last Budgets, Pranab Mukherjee even allocated a sum for promotion of organic farming.
A LEGACY BYGONE
Yet what is ironic about all these efforts is that they seem to start from the assumption that organic farming is a Western practice that needs to be sold in India. The Indian roots of the movement, and Howard’s role have almost entirely been forgotten (one exception is Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya which for nine years had an annual Albert Howard Memorial lecture). A large part of the reason for this is because Indian agricultural research was built on the British system, which had repudiated Howard, and has since shown little interest in his work.
As a final indignity, Howard’s Indore institute seems to have been absorbed into the Indian agricultural research system so thoroughly that no memory of its internationally pioneering role seems to survive. But this is perhaps one place where a formal reassessment of Howard’s contribution to Indian agriculture can start. Some acknowledgement should be made of the Institute’s role – perhaps even a reallocation of its resources towards the promotion of organic farming. Like with Howard’s work in India this would not be a change as much as a return, to the roots of a practice with international impact, but whose roots lie firmly in Indian soil.