Towards a Sustainable Agriculture--The Living Soil

By Lady Eve Balfour

The following classic text in the organic movement is an address given by thelate Lady Eve Balfour to an IFOAM conference in Switzerland in 1977


Reproduced with permission from the Organic Gardening and FarmingSociety of Tasmania Inc
© 1995, Canberra Organic Growers SocietyInc.

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   In order to set the scene for this historic conference, andfor the benefit of the younger participants, I think it might be helpful to startby sketching, briefly, the origins and development of the, now world-wide, organicmovement. After that I propose to explain how my own involvement in the movementled to the so-called 'Haughley Experiment', and outline the contribution which thatexperiment made towards today's recognition of the importance of ecological awarenessin Agriculture. Finally I want to share with you some of my thoughts on what I believeshould be our approach, both philosophical and pragmatic, in working for a SustainableAgriculture.

   I do not know where or when the ideas that have brought us togetherhere were first called a movement, but I have little doubt that the main inspirationderived from the work of the early research pioneers in the first quarter of thiscentury, though this is not to discount the influence of one of the most important,who was even earlier, namely Rudolf Steiner.

   Those I particularly have in mind were: in the medical field,Sir Robert McCanison, Drs. Francis Pottinger Jnr. and Weston Price, and in the agriculturalfield, Sir Albert Howard, Dr. William Albrecht, and Dr. E. Pfeiffer.

   Following these, and overlapping with them to a certain extent,came another wave of giants--men like Dr. George Scott-Williamson, Dr. Lionel Picton,Dr. Dendy, Prof. Barry Commoner and the courageous Rachel Carson, and among the listof departed great ones, I must, sadly, now add Dr. Schumacher.

   These pioneers had one thing in common--they were what we shouldnow call Ecologists. They all succeeded in breaking away from the narrow confinesof the preconceived ideas that dominated the scientific thinking of their day. Theylooked at the living world from a new perspective--they also asked new questions.Instead of the contemporary obsession with disease and its causes, they set out todiscover the causes of Health. This led inevitably to an awareness of wholeness (thetwo words after all, have the same origin) and to a gradual understanding that alllife is one.

   Although I started farming in Suffolk in 1919 my own interestin the ecological approach only began in the early 19?0's. By that time local societieshad been formed in more than one country to promote organic husbandry and whole food,though I was not aware of this until 1945 when plans were under way for forming theSoil Association, the first society in the movement aiming at a world membership,and with research high on its list of priorities, which brings me to the HaughleyExperiment.

   This was started in 1939 on my farm and taken over by the SoilAssociation in 1947 which for the next 25 years directed and sponsored it. This pioneeringexperiment was the first ecologically designed agricultural research project, ona full farm scale. It was set up to fill a gap in the evidence on which the claimsfor the benefits of organic husbandry were based. It was decided that the only wayto achieve this was to observe and study nutrition cycles, functioning as a whole,under contrasting methods of land use, but on the same soil and under the same management,the purpose being to assess what effect, if any, the different soil treatments hadon the biological quality of the produce grown thereon, including its nutritive valueas revealed through its animal consumers. This had never been done before.

   Three side-by-side units of land were established, each largeenough to operate a full farm rotation, so that the food-chains involved--soil--plant--animaland back to the soil, could be studied as they functioned through successive rotationalcycles, involving many generations of plants and animals, in order that interdependencesbetween soil, plant and animal, and also any cumulative effects could manifest.

   In order that you may understand the significance of some ofthe results I cannot avoid a short summary of how these units were operated. Onewas a stockless arable farm which for the purpose of this talk I shall ignore--theother two were both ley farms (temporary pasture alternating with arable) operatingthe same rotation. Each carried a herd of dairy cows, a flock of poultry and a smallflock of sheep. All livestock was fed exclusively on the produce of its own unit,replacements were home bred and cereal and pulse crops raised from home-grown seed.All wastes of crops and stock were returned only to its own unit. Only livestockproducts and surplus animals were sold off the farm. All crops were put through theanimals. On one of these two comparable units supplementary chemical fertilizerswere used, as well as herbicides, insecticides and fungicides when thought necessary.This unit was called the Mixed Section.

   On the other unit, called the Organic Section, no chemicalswere used. It was thus entirely dependent on its own biological fertility. As nearlyas possible a closed cycle was maintained so that a minimum of unknown factors shouldbe introduced into the food chain to confuse the issue.

   You can see, I expect, why such an exploration into the unknownwas left to the private enterprise of a charitable society with small resources.It was at total variance with the fragmentary techniques of orthodox agriculturalresearch, which is based on randomised small plots--a technique quite incapable ofthrowing any light on biological interdependencies in a functioning whole. The establishmentof the day even went so far as to declare that there was no case to investigate--theywere particularly critical of the closed system on the organic section, yet mostof the significant findings were the outcome of this, and would not have been revealedwithout it. I will attempt to summarise a few of the more important findings, concentratingon those that have special relevance for the subject matter of this conference.

   In addition to carefully recorded field observations, an extensiverange of sample analyses (soil and products) was carried out by the consultant bio-chemist,Dr. R.F. Milton. These included analyses for available plant nutrients in every fieldevery month for a period of over 10 years.

   The outcome of this huge number of individual analyses, runninginto thousands, was a new discovery. It was one of the most important single findingsto come out of the experiment, because it was so conclusive and, surprisingly, hithertounsuspected by orthodox agricultural chemists--namely that the levels of availableminerals in the soil fluctuate according to the season, maximum levels coincidingwith the time of maximum plant demand. These fluctuations were far more marked onthe Organic Section than on the other two, where, moreover, they could be partlyrelated to fertilizer application.

   On the Organic Section, which received no fertilizers, the fluctuationwas so marked that, for example, in The field with the highest humus content andthe longest history of no chemicals, as much as 10 times more available phosphatehas been recorded in the growing period of the year than in the dormant period. Potashand nitrogen followed the same general pattern. It was clear, from the fact of theclosed cycle, that this seasonal release of minerals could only have been broughtabout by biological agencies, and it appears to be a natural action-pattern of abiologically active soil.

   When this finding was first published it was taken up by a ScottishUniversity, repeated, confirmed, and is now generally accepted. Previously it hadbeen assumed that a single spot analysis at any time of year could show what thesoil required.

   The many different chemical analyses, carried out on crops andlivestock products, revealed no consistent or significant differences between thesections, other than the usually higher water content of the chemically grown fodder.Seasonal variations, and those between fields in the same section, often exceededaverage sectional differences. But this lack of difference was in itself significantin that on the organic section, receiving no added minerals the analysis of soiland crops showed a nutrient status that remained consistently as high as that ofthe others.

   This indicates how little of the minerals applied as fertilizersare recovered in crops, and is important in relation to the purpose of this conference.Dr. Milton has summed it up thus: "The analytical work carried out in connectionwith the Haughley Experiment has shown how wasteful of natural resources is moderncommercial farming and how with a closed-cycle technique nutrients are recycled andmoreover become available in situ provided that an ecological approach is made tothe methods of cultivation and farm management."

   Although analytical difference between the sections was negligible,there were functional differences of some significance, such as the relative freedomfrom insect pest damage of the organic section crops, and the longer working lifeof its livestock. A number of the functional differences noted threw up unansweredquestions and so point the directions for useful future research.

   Three examples must serve to illustrate what I mean:

   1. In spite of the mixed section receiving no less organic returnthan its organic counterpart it could be clearly demonstrated that its fields hadbecome dependent on their fertilizer supplements in a manner suggestive of drug addiction.By contrast the organic fields developed an increasing biological vigour which enabledthem to be self-supporting. Had we not operated the closed cycle policy, this surprisingresult would almost certainly have been attributed to whatever importation had takenplace. I shall be referring later to research work carried out during the last yearand not yet published in detail that may provide at least a partial explanation forthis and my next example.

   2. A consistent finding, particularly with autumn sown cereals,was a visual observation of an apparently much delayed growth in the early stageson the Organic Section. Further examination, however, showed that in this initialperiod the plant in an organic environment is 'concentrating' (if I may so put it)on establishing a vigorous root system. Having done so, but not before, it is readyto make top growth (i.e. the behaviour pattern of growth is quite different to thatof plants growing in a chemical or 'mixed' environment). This interpretation is supportedby the fact that before the end of the growing season the 'organic' crops caughtup the others and, as I have stated, remained able to look after themselves.

   3. With the livestock, the temperament of the animals composingthe herds and flocks exhibited sectional differences, those belonging to the organicsection being noticeably more contented. Our findings also confirmed the many reportsreceived from organic farmers in different parts of the world, that a given outputof animal products--milk, meat, eggs etc. required from 12-15% less input of foodwhen this was grown organically.

   At Haughley for example, though the organic herbal leys wereof clearly sparser growth than the much lusher mixed-section leys, the cows on theformer gave, over a 20 year period, around 15% more milk than the other. (To forestallthe obvious comment, we were able to show that this contrast was not due to a geneticfactor.)

   Once more this finding is relevant to any discussion about analternative and sustainable Agriculture, and this is what I now want to talk about.To start with, I want to answer three widely held objections to the idea that organicfarming on a world scale can ever be possible.

   The most frequently heard argument is that intensive chemicalfarming provides the only hope of feeding the expanding world population and hastherefore to be accepted whether we like it or not. To me it seems probable thatthe exact opposite could prove to be the case, and that it is an alternative andlargely organic agriculture that will be forced upon us whether we like it or not.This is because, as is becoming increasingly apparent, the days of the former arenumbered. One reason is the enormous demands on the world's non-renewable resourcesof energy, made by our Western life-style in general, and modern farming techniquesin particular. Another is that modern methods are putting strains on the biota whichis causing it to collapse.

   Thus it is only common sense to look at alternatives, and inall seriousness study their potential viability.

   It is not yet, however, generally accepted that the days ofour present methods and behaviour are numbered. Even where it is, it is too oftenregarded as a long term problem which must not be allowed to obscure the immediateproblem, namely the need to increase quantitative food production now. Here it isargued that organic farming is less efficient, that it has to rely on re-cyclingwhich is wasteful, so that were it to be adopted, world food production would inevitablybe lower, particularly production of protein, at a time when what we need is to produceever more per acre.

   To this I would like to point out three things:

   1. A common view among nutritionists today is that the amountof protein (especially animal protein) hitherto thought to be required by man hasbeen greatly over- estimated. (Organic farmers have found this also to be true forlivestock).

   2. There need be little loss in re-cycling if we did not wasteso much.

   3. Certainly we need to produce more per acre. Unfortunatelythe yardstick of modern economics is to measure the efficiency by production perman.

   Labour-intensive small units will always be able to producespectacularly more per acre than the large mechanised farms, apart from the findingthat organically grown food goes further. When the inevitable change in life-styletakes place I predict that we shall find it easier to feed the world population thanwe think, perhaps easier than now because Western Nations will presumably have becomeless gluttonous. I predict also that we shall all be healthier!

   We still hear, though less frequently than we used to, the argumentthat there is no scientific basis for advocating exclusive use of organic manures,such as FYM and compost, because 'there is absolutely no difference between a plantnutrient contained in organic materials and the same nutrient in in-organic chemicalform'. There may be no chemical, or other easily analysable, difference, but thereis a demonstrable functional difference. Anything having an effect on root distribution,for example, may have an effect on plant nutrition because it will influence thevolume of soil explored.

   Thus good soil structure in depth, such as is obtained in abiologically active soil, can improve productivity simply by increasing the depthof soil exploited for water and nutrients. There is now well documented scientificevidence that fertilizer concentrations of N and P have an influence on localisedroot branching. They induce it at the expense of deep rooting exploration. This couldwell lead to luxury uptakes of N and P linked to inadequate uptake of other nutrients.

   There are implications in this for nutrient unbalance in thecrop and thereby some risk of nutrient unbalance in the animals and humans feedingupon it. If root activity is a factor in the development and maintenance of soilstructure, there are also implications in this for the overall pattern of soil development.

   This is the work I was referring to earlier as possibly throwinglight on some Haughley findings. (A reference to it is M.C. Drew Ag. Research CouncilLetcome Laboratory Annual Report for 1975-1976).

   In a biologically active soil, which implies one adequatelyprovided with organic matter and natural rock minerals, the latter are released asthe plant want them, moreover the roots are presented with a complete diet from whichthey can pick and choose.

   Plants are highly selective in such circumstances, hence thevalue of some of the deep rooting weeds (which the organic farmer calls herbs whenhe sows them deliberately). Normal chemical fertilizers, apart from the disadvantagejust mentioned are far too simple: A plant's mineral requirements are many timeswider in range. By giving only two or three which stimulate bulk growth, others,equally important, are exhausted, or locked up in the immediate neighbourhood ofthe rhizosphere, thus leading, as already mentioned, to unbalanced nutrition of theplant and often, through their solubility, to serious environmental pollution.

   Plant nutrients do not, as was once taught, all have to be reducedto simple inorganic solutions in order to be absorbed. Plants can ingest quite complexorganic molecules, unbroken. The history of D.D.T. provides irrefutable evidencefor this. So do such symbiotic mechanisms as mycorrhizal association, whereby theplant may well derive some nutrient equivalent to vitamins in animal nutrition.

   A possible additional factor for which, I readily admit, thereis at present no scientific proof but which seems to me to provide an interpretationconsistent with many observations, is that, in nature's food-chains, a plant's normalmethod of mineral intake is not direct, but second-hand, the mineral plant-foodsbeing, as it were, by-products of the activity of the soil micro-flora and othermembers of the soil population.

   Such by-products have a far more complex and comprehensive formulathan N, P and K and moreover are living substances. Inorganic chemicals are inert.A food-chain is not only a material circuit, but also an energy circuit. Soil fertilityhas been defined as the capacity of soil to receive, store and transmit energy. Asubstance may be the same chemically but very different as a conductor of livingenergy. The hypothesis is that the energy manifesting in birth, growth, reproduction,death, decay and rebirth, can only flow through channels composed of living cells,and that when the flow is interrupted by inert matter it can be short-circuited withconsequent damage to some part of the food-chain, not necessarily where the blockoccurred. The Anthroposophical Society's Research establishment at Dornach in thiscountry (Switzerland) has provided some evidence in support of such a view.

   I would like to see much more research undertaken in this field.

   Now I want to put forward what I believe our aims should bein evolving a sustainable agriculture, and then, finally, pass on to you some thoughtson organic farming as I see it.

   The criteria for a sustainable agriculture can be summed upin one word--permanence, which means adopting techniques that maintain soil fertilityindefinitely; that utilise, as far as possible, only renewable resources; that donot grossly pollute the environment; and that foster life energy (or if preferredbiological activity) within the soil and throughout the cycles of all the involvedfood-chains.

   This is what biological husbandry sets out to attempt--withan increasing degree of understanding and success among its practitioners. Throughoutthe world, as a result of their own experience, these sincerely believe that theycan offer a genuine and viable alternative agriculture, capable of solving many ofthe problems of mankind. This possibility, as well as the need for it, is becomingincreasingly recognised in academic and scientific circles.

   I am often asked how, in a broad sense, I define Organic Farmingas opposed to conventional farming. Though I prefer the term biological husbandrybecause of its emphasis on life, the short answer is balance; however I think itis necessary to amplify a little.

   Contrary to the views held by some, I am sure that the techniquesof organic farming cannot be imprisoned in a rigid set of rules. They depend essentiallyon the outlook of the farmer. Without a positive and ecological approach it is notpossible to farm organically. The approach of the modern conventional farmer is negative,narrow and fragmentary, and consequently produces imbalance. His attitude to 'pests'and 'weeds', for example, is to regard them as enemies to be killed--if possibleexterminated. When he attacks them with lethal chemicals he seldom gives a thoughtto the effect this may have on the food supply or habitat of other forms of wildlifeamong whom he has many more friends than foes. The predatory insects and the insectivorousbirds are obvious examples.

   The attitude of the organic farmer, who has trained himselfto think ecologically, is different. He tries to see the living world as a whole.He regards so-called pests and weeds as part of the natural pattern of the Biota,probably necessary to its stability and permanence, to he utilized rather than attacked.Throughout his operations he endeavours to achieve his objective by co-operatingwith natural agencies in place of relying on man-made substitutes. He studies whatappear to be nature's rules - as manifested in a healthy wilderness--and attemptsto adapt them to his own farm needs, instead of flouting them.

   One of the first things be will notice about a natural eco-systemsuch as a Wilderness or a Natural Forest is Balance and Stability. The innumerabledifferent species of fauna and flora that go to make up such a community, achieve,as a result of their interdependence, whether in cooperation or competition, collectiveimmortality. Seldom, if ever, is any species eliminated; seldom, if ever, does anyspecies multiply to pest proportions. Thus the organic farmer, if he has a crop badlyattacked by some pest, let us say, (and this can happen, even to organic farmers!)recognises that this is a symptom of imbalance in his local environment, and he firstlooks to see if some faulty technique of his own has been responsible--often it has.

   This does not mean that he can always avoid emergency remedialmeasures but these he employs only when there is a real emergency, not as a routine.He strives instead to bring about biological balance, and it is remarkable the extentto which organic farmers and growers do in fact achieve this. I could give you severalexamples, but one must suffice.

   Some years ago a large scale organic commercial grower of myacquaintance, growing vegetables, fruit and flowers was visited by a team of scientistsfrom Cambridge University--they included plant pathologists and entomologists. Theyknew it was an unsprayed holding and they came looking for disease and pests. Theyfound isolated examples of everything they expected to find, but, as they put it,they failed to find a single case of crop damage.

   Besides biological balance, the ecologically minded organicfarmer takes note of, and tries to apply, other apparent biological roles. For examplenature's diversity of species he adapts through rotations, under-sowing, and avoidingmonoculture of crops or animals. Nature's habit of filtering sunlight and rain throughsome form of protective soil cover, he adapts by such practices as cover-croppingand mulching. Top soil on the top appears to be nature's plan. Organic matter isalways deposited on the surface. It is left to the earthworms and some insects totake it below. The organic farmer also puts his compost and farmyard manure on, orvery near, the surface and in carrying out mechanical cultivations keeps soil-inversionto a minimum, the tine cultivator being preferred to the plough.

   Nature's highly efficient re-cycling system ensures provisionof living food for all organisms in the food chain from soil bacteria and fungi tolarge fauna; the organic farmer therefore lays great stress on the conservation andreturn to the soil of all organic residues. His aim is to feed and to assist proliferationof the soil population and to leave it to feed the crop.

   Finally, and of equal importance, he notes, and tries to reproduce,the almost perfect structure of a biologically active soil which alone ensures thethree most important characteristics of a fertile soil--good aeration, water-holdingcapacity, and free drainage.

   It is quite astonishing the extent to which this all-importantproperty of good soil is neglected in modern agriculture. Poor soil structure leadsto imbalance between water and air in the pore spaces of the soil. Many apparentmineral or trace mineral deficiencies in the soil turn out to be oxygen deficiencies.When that is corrected the others disappear.

   In most agricultural soils there is really plenty of mineralplant food for the nutritional requirements of plants, even when continuously cropped,if their roots are allowed to exploit it downwards. The key to this is good soilstructure which is greatly influenced by the activity of earthworms. The techniquesof modern farming tend to destroy good structure in a number of ways, such as bythe impaction of heavy implements, by carrying out cultivations in unsuitable weatherconditions, and by failure to provide sufficient organic food and/or a suitable limestatus for the earthworm population.

   All these faults are the outcome of failure to think ecologically--theyare symptoms of a degree of fragmentation in our approach to the living world whichhas become a real threat to our survival. Throughout biological evolution, startingfrom single celled organisms right up to the complexity of rain forests, the processhas been characterised by increasing diversity among species, lengthening of thefood chains, and progressive enrichment of the environment.

   For the first time in the history of the planet the actionsof modern man appear to be putting this process into reverse. Whole species of faunaand flora are being eliminated, the food-chains are becoming shorter, and the environmentprogressively impoverished. It only takes a little imagination to picture what couldhappen if the trend continues.

   What are we going to do about it? This is the real challengefor the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and in my viewit is one of education. The Soil Association is doing an excellent pioneering jobin adult education into the principles and practice of biological husbandry. It isnow urgently necessary that a still wider aspect of ecology should also form partof the regular curriculum of all schools, starting at the primary stage. The troubleis we have first to teach the teachers, and here, I think, we must be agreed on whatwe want to teach.

   There are two motivations behind an ecological approach--oneis based on self interest, however enlightened, i.e. when consideration for otherspecies is taught solely because on that depends The survival of our own.

   The other motivation springs from a sense that the biota isa whole, of which we are a part, and that the other species which compose it andhelped to create it; are entitled to existence in their own right. This is the wholenessapproach and it is my hope and belief that this is what we, as a federation, standfor.

   If I am right, this means that we cannot escape from the ethicaland spiritual values of life for they are part of wholeness. To ignore them and theirimplications would be to pursue another form of fragmentation. Therefore, I holdthat what we have to teach is the attitude defined by Aldo Leopold as 'A Land Ethic'.This requires that we extend the concept of Community to include all the speciesof life with which we share the planet. We must foster a reverence for all life,even that which we are forced to control, and we must, as Leopold put it--'Quit thinkingabout decent land use as solely an economic problem, but examine each question interms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economicallyexpedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability andbeauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise'.

   That quotation expresses what I believe should be our guidelines.