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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Marriage of East and West: The Real Cultural Roots of Organic Farming

Compost pit at Indore, India
Workers layering compost at the Indore Research Station in India, 1920s

If the main influences of modern organic farming didn’t come from African or Indigenous American culture, where did they come from?

The answer to that question lies in the writings of one of the founders of the modern organic movement: Sir Albert Howard. Howard was an agricultural scientist who spent most of his career in India. Unlike most other British workers for the colonial government, Howard respected and tried to understand Indian culture. “Indian agriculture can point to a history of many centuries,” Howard wrote in his 1945 book Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease. “What could be more sensible than to watch and learn from an experience which had passed so prolonged a test of time?”

Shortly after he first arrived in India, in 1906, Howard emphasized the importance of understanding traditional Indian agricultural practices. “The present condition of Indian agriculture is the heritage of experience handed down from time immemorial by a people little affected by the many changes in the government of the country,” he said. “The present agricultural practices of India are worthy of respect, however strange and primitive they may appear to Western ideas. The attempt to improve Indian agriculture on Western lines appears to be a fundamental mistake. What is wanted is rather the application of Western scientific methods to the local conditions so as to improve Indian agriculture on its own lines.”

Howard was not totally uncritical of Indian agriculture. He observed both good and bad farming practices, and sought to understand why some fields produced better, healthier crops than others. It was through careful observation that he developed the theory that would become the cornerstone of organic farming—plants grown in healthy, fertile soil are healthy and relatively free from pests and diseases.

The next step was to develop a method of maintaining soil fertility that would work in India. Most British farmers would have recommended fertilizing the soil with animal manure. But Howard was sensitive enough to Indian culture to realize that most manure was used as cooking fuel. It was the desire to develop an organic fertilizer that used less manure and was affordable for Indian farmers that eventually led to his Indore Method of composting.

To develop the Indore Method, Howard relied on two main sources—scientific composting experiments being done by researchers in Britain and the United States, and the traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean composting methods recorded by F. H. King in his book Farmers of Forty Centuries. It was the combination of both Eastern and Western influences that resulted in the composting method that became the cornerstone of organic farming.

Organic farming “will probably remain for many years one of the most signal and successful instances of the marriage of Western knowledge to Eastern wisdom,” Howard’s wife Louise wrote in her 1953 book Sir Albert Howard in India. Over the years, this marriage of East and West would continue, with organic leaders continuing to improve their practices with knowledge from both Europe and Asia. What we call organic farming today is a Euro-Asian system, developed to meet the unique challenges of trying to work with nature in an industrialized age.

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