Sustainable Agriculture Part 1



EARTHSCAN          2005





Introduction to Part 1: Agrarian and Rural Perspectives by Jules Pretty

  • Part 1 of this Reader in Sustainable Agriculture focuses on seven agrarian and rural perspectives on agricultural sustainability by Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, David Orr, David Kline, Wes Jackson and Cornelia Butler Flora and Jan Flora.
  • Albert Howard is seen by many as the founder of the modern organic movement. In his most influential book, An Agricultural Testament, he set out many of the scientific principles for organic farming while in Farming and Gardening for Health and Disease, he makes an early critical link between the state of agriculture and the health of the public.
  • Aldo Leopold is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential conservation writers of the 20th century.
  • Wendell Berry is one of the best known writers on agrarian pasts and presents in the US. He is a practicing farmer, poet an author of many books. In this excerpt from his 1976 book, The Unsettling of America, he tells the story of the change in culture and agriculture in a few short generations of frontier invasion, spread and modernization.
  • David Orr is professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, and author of a number of highly respected books on the relations between people and nature.
  • David Kline is an Amish farmer and author of many books and articles drawing on his experience of farming the rolling hills of southern Ohio. In his essay, he reflects on his community’s rootedness to the land. His careful use of sensitive, or sustainable, farming methods has resulted in nature being restored on his farm. He uses divers rotation patterns, grows and raises many crops and animals, and still farms with horses.
  • Wes Jackson is the founder of the Land Institute on Kansas, and has written widely about rural communities and the land. In this excerpt from his book, Becoming Native to this Place, he describes what is left of Matfield Green, a town of some 50 people in the rural plains of Kansas.
  • In the final article of this part of the reader, Cornelia Butler Flora and Jan Flora, both of Iowa State University, succinctly set out how social capital can be created in Post-industrial communities.


Perspective 1: The Post-war Task by Albert Howard

  • The problem of disease and health took on a wider scope. In March 1939 new ground was broken. The Local Medical and Panel Committees of Cheshire, summing up their experience of the working of the National Health Insurance Act for over a quarter of a century in the county, did not hesitate to link up their judgement on the unsatisfactory state of health of the human population under their care with the problem of nutrition, tracing the line of fault back to an impoverished soil and supporting their contentions by reference to the ideas which I had for some time been advocating.
  • Their arguments were powerfully supported by the Peckham Health Centre and by the work, already published, of Sir Robert McCarrison, which latter told the story from the other side of the world and from a precisely opposite angle – he was able to instance an Eastern People, the Hunzas, who were the direct embobiment of an ideal of health and whose food was derived from soil kept in a state of the highest natural fertility.
  • By these contemporaneous pioneering efforts the way was blazed for treating the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject, calling for a boldly revised point of view and entirely fresh investigations.
  • By this time sufficient evidence had accumulated sor setting out the case fpr soil fertility in book form. This was published in June 1940 by the Oxford University Press under the title of An Agricultural Testament. This book, now in its fourth English and second American edition, set forth the whole gamut of connected problems as far as can at present be done.
  •  In it I summed up my life’s work and advanced the following views:
  1. The birthright of all living things is health.
  2. This law is true for soil, plant, animal, and man: the health of these four is one connected chain.
  3. Any weakness or defect in the health of any earlier link in the chain is carried on to the next and succeeding links, until it reaches the last, namely, man.
  4. The widespread vegetable and animal pests and diseases, which are such a bane to modern agriculture, are evidence of a great failure of health in the second (plant) and third (animal) links of the chain.
  5. The impaired health of human populations (the fourth link) in modern civilized countries is a consequence of this failure in the second and third links.
  6. This general failure in the last three links is to be attributed to failure in the first link, the soil: the undernourishment of the soil is at the root of all. The failure to maintain a healthy agriculture has largely cancelled out all the advantages we have gained from our improvements in hygiene, in housing and our medical discoveries
  7. To retrace our steps is not really difficult if once we set our minds to the problem. We have to bear in mind Nature’s dictates, and we must conform to her imperious demand: (a) for the return of all wastes to the land; (b) for the mixture of the animal and vegetable existence; (c) for the maintaining of an adequate reserve system of feeding the plant, that is we must not interrupt the mycorrhizal association. If we are willing so far to conform to natural law, we shall rapidly reap our reward not only in a flourishing agriculture, but in the immense asset of an abounding health in ourselves and in our children’s children.
  • These ideas, straightforward as they appear when set forth in the form given above, conflict with a number of vested interests. It has been my self-appointed task during the last few years of my life to join hands with those who are convinced of their truth to fight the forces impeding progress.
  • The general thesis that no one generation has a right to exhaust the soil from which humanity must draw its sustenance has received further powerful support from religious bodies, contained in one of the five fundamental principles adopted by the recent Malvern Conference of Christian Churches as follows: ‘The resources of the earth should be used as God’s gifts to the whole human race and used with due consideration for the needs of the present and future generations.’
  • Food is the chief necessity of life. Real security against want and ill health can only be assured by an abundant supply of fresh food properly grown in soil in good heart.
  • The first place in post-war plans of reconstruction must be given to soil fertility in every part of the world.
  • Land must be raised to a higher level of productivity by a rational system of farming which puts a stop to the exploitation of land for the purpose of profit and takes into account the importance of humus in producing food of good quality.
  • The electorate and they alone possess the power to insist that every boy and every girl shall enter into their birthright – health, and that efficiency, wellbeing and contentment which depend thereon.
  • One of the objects of this book is to show the man in the street how this England of ours can be born again. He can help in this task, which depends at least as much on the plain efforts of the plain man in his own farm, garden, or allotment as on all the expensive paraphernalia, apparatus and elaboration of the modern scientist.
  • A healthy population will be no mean achievement, for our greatest possession is ourselves. The man in the street will have to do three things: 
  1. He must create in his own farm, garden, or allotment examples without end of what a fertile soil can do
  2. He must insist that public meals in which he is directly interested, such as those served in boarding schools, in the canteens of day schools and of factories, in popular restaurants and tea shops, and at the seaside resorts at which he takes his holidays are composed of fresh produce of fertile soil
  3. He must use his vote to compel his various representative – municipal, county, and parliamentary to see to it: (a) that the soil of this island is made fertile and maintained in this condition; (b) that the public health system of the future is based on the fresh produce of land in good heart.
  4. One lesson must be stressed. The real Arsenal of Democracy is a fertile soil, the fresh produce of which is the birthright of nations.



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