The New Truth

By Eliot Coleman

On Saturdays during the summer, I take the opportunity to chat with our farm stand customers while they are waiting in line. I mention to them, what is to me, a most significant fact in the recent history of agricultural “science”. When I began as an organic farmer back in the 1960s, the counter-propaganda against the idea of organic farming was overwhelming. Every expert at the US Department of Agriculture and every plant scientist at every university in the country believed and taught that commercial production of pest-free, naturally grown, beautiful and high-yielding crops was impossible without chemical aids. Impossible! Yet that impossible scenario – we use no chemicals or pesticides because they are unnecessary once a biologically active fertile soil has been successfully established – is exactly what our eager customers can see growing all around them in the fields encircling our farm stand. It wasn’t that those USDA and university experts were ignorant. It was that they were under the illusion that the chemical-industry-influenced agricultural science they had been taught during their education was correct.

It took over four decades for that popularly accepted, supposedly scientific “truth” to be effectively disproven by successful organic farmers. The new truth, organic farming, which became increasingly irrefutable in the US every year, began with the activities of a bunch of determined hippies with a passion for food quality, and eventually became part of large scale agriculture.

The success of those untutored hippies in subverting that dominant paradigm by focusing on soil care systems that instilled “positive” health in the crops, logically asks a follow-up question: Are there other examples of equally biased, industry-influenced scientific “truths” that affect our daily lives?

The first target is obvious; the acceptance by the medical profession of pharmaceutical drugs as the sole answer to health maintenance – the practice of treating the symptom – to the exclusion of working to correct the cause of ill health by honestly investigating the potential of higher quality food and better diets as the foundation for a healthy human population. The parallel with the discussion above is inescapable. In both cases – agricultural chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs – the huge vested-interests behind them have relentlessly promulgated their point of view and successfully biased public understanding (especially scientist’s and doctor’s thinking) to foster reliance on their products.

The potential for influencing human-health with properly grown food from compost fertilized soils was a prime motivator for the organic pioneers of the 1930s and 40s. Many of them were involved with a 1930s investigation of human health improvement conducted in southeast London at the Pioneer Health Center which was popularly called the Peckham Experiment. It included whole grains, vegetables from the Center’s organic farm plus free range eggs and full fat dairy products, especially for all expectant and nursing mothers. It was an attempt to create a new science of human well-being, comparable to the new science of plant and livestock well-being called organic farming, that would apply a similar “positive-health” concept by improving human “growing conditions”.

The Peckham staff were trying to discover ways of creating health rather than merely offering remedial treatments for sickness. The two British medical researchers who led the Center, Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse, proposed in their book Science, Synthesis and Sanity (1966) to name the new science “ETHOLOGY”, which they defined as “the study of that state of order and ease forming the background against which disorder and disease become manifest . . . we need knowledge of how to cultivate order, even to a greater extent than knowledge of how to cure and prevent dis-order. . . health is a process: not a state. . . how lost health can be patched and palliated [the study of pathology] presents a different challenge to the scientist from how health can be cultivated [the study of ethology] within the dictates of bionomic order. These two aspects – pathology and ethology – involve two different scientific adventures.[1]

The latter of those two scientific adventures, “ethology” (my 1980 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary defines the word as “the scientific study of the characteristic behavior patterns of animals”), is a logical extension to human health of the revolutionary ideas about cultivating plant health practiced, and popularized, by the European organic farming pioneers. Organic farmers have been described as possessing “a profound intellectual reverence for the soil.” Given the importance of the newly appreciated soil micro-biome for plant health coupled with the role of the closely associated human micro-biome for human health, “a profound intellectual reverence for the soil” would seem to be an obvious starting point in developing the new science of Human Ethology.

The success that organic farming techniques have had in reversing the industry manipulated acceptability of chemical fertilizer and pesticide use in agriculture, gives us hope that a new path is possible for human health as well. If our health professionals were to prevail in convincing the public to follow a positive human-health-focused dietary system that is as effective as the positive plant-health-focused soil fertility system of organic agriculture, the value to human well-being would be incalculable.

[1] Williamson, Scott and Innes Pearse, Science, Synthesis and Sanity, Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, (1966), pp.22, 23, 309, 315.