Thoughts on an August Afternoon in 2020

By Eliot Coleman

Every Saturday this summer I have taken the opportunity to chat with our farm stand customers while they are waiting in long lines in their cars (only six people at a time are allowed in the farm stand for social distancing.) I mention to them, what is to me, the 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 pesticides (neither chemical nor organic) 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 took over four decades for that popularly-accepted, industry-influenced supposed 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 hippie organic farmers 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 misinformed, industry-influenced scientific “truths” that rule daily life in our society to the continuing detriment of human well-being?

My first target is obvious; the embrace by the medical profession of pharmaceuticals as the answer to health maintenance, to the exclusion of honestly investigating the potential of higher quality food (fresh from the organic farm) as the foundation for a healthy human population. The parallel with the discussion above is inescapable. In both cases – agricultural chemicals and medical drugs – the huge vested interests behind them have relentlessly promulgated their point of view and successfully biased public understanding 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 earliest organic farmers 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, free range eggs and full fat dairy products, especially for all expectant and nursing mothers. It was an attempt to create a new medical science, comparable to the creation of the new agricultural science of organic farming, that applied a “positive-health” concept to the health of human beings by improving their “growing conditions”. They were trying to discover the laws of health rather than merely offering remedial treatments for sickness. The two British medical researchers who led the Peckham Experiment, Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse, proposed in 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. . . 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 – grown – within the dictates of bionomic order. These two aspects – pathology and ethology – involve two different scientific adventures.

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, successfully practiced and popularized by the European organic farming pioneers. Humans have long been conscious of a connection between soil health and human health. An English farmer, Lord Northbourne, summed it up in his book Look to the Land (1940). “The health of mankind and the health of the land are not two distinct matters. Farming is the external mechanism of human biology.”

Successful organic farmers have been described as possessing “a profound intellectual reverence for the soil.” That’s certainly true in my experience. Given the importance of the soil micro-biome for plant health coupled with the role of the associated human micro-biome in 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.

In my own life since I began farming, in addition to enjoying the beautiful pest-free crops that this farm produces day after day thanks to organic soil-care, I have tried to nourish my body with whole foods, the same as I have been trying to nourish the soil with organic matter and natural rock minerals. Given the consistency of Nature’s basic principles, I consider that a logical course of action. Unfortunately, it will be not be an easy step for the population in general to shift to a nutritious food diet. Everyone today is confronted by the intentionally addictive food-like-substances in the supermarket (“you can’t eat just one”) that result from modern junk food flavor technologies. It would require the FDA to mandate a prohibition on denatured and harmful processed foods. Obviously, that is not going to happen.

However, the example of organic farming presents a pattern worth following and gives us hope. If we were to be successful in establishing for the general public a positive health-focused eating behavior in harmony with the positive-health-focused ideals of organic farming and human ethology, the value to human well-being would be incalculable.