Can farming Save Itself and the World?
(Report of the Lecture given by Dr. E. E. Pfeiffer at Caxton Hall 13th July 1950)
DR. PFEIFFER was introduced by Mr. Rolf Gardiner who welcomed the large audience to what was surely an uncommon occasion, and to the theme upon which much might be said that evening that would deserve careful record and recollection. Agriculture was everywhere in the throes of a revolution. The agrarian reforms pursued by the Russians were having repercussions in many peasant lands, while the Stalin plan for altering the climate of the Steppes must be taken seriously. For here was an endeavour to introduce a form of organic husbandry by decree and slave labour, without religious sanctions. Elsewhere it was not spectacular erosion which counted so much as a general widespread deterioration of soil fertility and a universal increase of illness and disease. England might yet provide the examples of good husbandry rooted in piety which would save farming from scientific materialism. He quoted the words of Archbishop William Temple, who said ” that the farmer who cares for his land and neglects his prayers is, as a farmer, co-operating with God; and the farmer who says his prayers and neglects his land is failing, as a farmer to co-operate with God. It is a great mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.”
Mr. Gardiner introduced also Lord Portsmouth and Lady Eve Balfour both well-known representatives of organic farming, who would speak from the platform, and after explaining the procedure proposed for the meeting, called upon Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer.
The lecturer began with the question : From what has farming to save itself ? From a situation in which it is becoming ever more technicalized and commercialized and is, in consequence, using up the resources of the earth and not properly restoring what it takes away. This is a paradox when one approaches things from the biological angle ; for then one looks on the soil as the supporter life, and on life as something that is inherently self-renewing.
There is a great modern literature of deficiencies and soil exhaustion, of shortcomings of all kinds and the difficulty of making a living in agriculture. The biologist, however, should approach the matter differently. He might say: soils are capital, and must be maintained as such, cost what it may. In general, however, human beings are willing to spend their resources on every conceivable thing except the real necessities of life!
Consequently we have in agriculture a peculiar situation. On the one hand, a steady decrease in the number of human beings engaged on the land ; for instance, where, fifty years ago, 35 to 37 per cent. of the American people were employed in farming, the figure twenty five years ago was 25 per cent., ten years ago, 18 per cent. and to-day it is about 12 per cent. only. That is, the land is depleted of human beings. That fact should be put in the main focus of consideration; when nowadays we deal with soil and crop deficiencies, we do not usually do this, but this deficiency of human beings is a basic one. These few people on the land have to clothe and feed all the rest of mankind.
On the other hand we have mechanization, usually supposed to help efficiency. Here Dr. Pfeiffer instanced his own farm as typical of American conditions : his 150 acres carry 27 to 30 cows and 15 to 20 young animals and is worked by two human beings, with mechanization. European immigrants are usually surprised at the conditions of life on such a farm, and at the intensity of work involved. For, infact, increased mechanization does not decrease burden on the human beings, who have to work harder machines ! There is not much time left for creative thinking.
Therefore, the research stations have to do the thinking for the farmer! That, at least, is the idea, but in fact, there are farms where science is really applied in farming. The science of the research stations hardly penetrates to the “dirt farmer.” the Mr. Jones with a few cows; these are, in practice, two different worlds.
What happens is that science leads to the building up of a point of view, and this then acts like a dogma. The chief idea in agricultural science at present is the Liebig theory of the last century. This theory is really right and correct in its proper realm: that can be said by representative of bio-dynamic methods, working in friendly relations with the organic movement. The scientific work has become so specialized, however, that by the time the fruits of this theory reach the farmer they have become little more than the recommendation to look after nitrogen, potash, phosphorus and calcium in the soil.
Further, there is a shortcoming in the Liebig theory which was observed by Liebig himself. Towards the end of his life, he found that certain rich soils did not behave as they should according to his theory. The Liebig theory is correct in practice on poor soils, but not (as would be shown) on rich, really fertile virgin soils.
We want fertile soils, however. The pioneers in America had them; and in fifty to seventy-five years, these soils have been run down.
From the Liebig theory one concluded that the least abundant element decides the issue (the so-called law of the minimum). For instance, if potash is outstandingly deficient in a soil, then it is the lack of potash that controls growth. This is, in fact, a basic truth or life, which is always determined by what it lacks most. For instance, money is of great use, but money does not help a shipwrecked sailor on a desert island; nor does it help in many other necessities of life. Now in soils, when the organic matter content is down to I per cent instead of the 4 per cent. of a fertile soil, it is the deficiency of organic matter that is decisive. That is the basis of the organic movement it has arisen as a consequence of earlier mistakes.
Beyond that there is another problem, one vitally connected with human health. Scientists in general are objective. When they are cover their mistakes they confess them. For instance Micherlich says: there must be some reason why all work done between 1933 and 1939, and in soil testing and the like, has led to the negative answer: We don’t know. Such confession, nevertheless, is of little help to the farmer for whom science was supposed to do the thinking. He has been the loser. Science may confess ignorance, but the farmer has had to make his living out of this lack of knowledge.
Americans like to confess their errors. Gordon Wayne of Texas University, says, for instance, that many State research institutions share the characteristic of failing to foresee the evolution of agricultural problems. This follows from the very nature of their training. It does not lead them to an interest in basic biological problems. Hence they neglect the next century’s problems in agriculture. It is a mistake to assume that a man trained in agriculture can cope with the biological problems of the future.
This shows that we need a new concept. We need the concept of the balancing of factors in life; a concept which necessitates our having an understanding for all the factors involved. Only when such a concept is developed and practised – when we are able to deal with the living process in its entirety, in the organized relations of its several factors with each other—then can we see light for the farmer who is the bearer of our future.
One-sided fertilizer practice has produced tremendous crops, but at a cost. This cost was not immediately obvious. The produce looked beautiful, the fine carrots, tomatoes and the rest. One day, however, Dr. Pfeiffer was shown some of these carrots which contained no carotene. A stunning discovery! One thinks of the literature on carotene in relation to Vitamin A, night blindness and so on. People are recommended to eat carrots on the strength of it. And then they buy carrots which contain little or no carotene. The diet which had been recommended by the doctor fails.
This is one example of the harm of believing something to be what in fact it is not. There are many other similar cases: e.g. bread, which fills the stomach with starch but is made from mineral or vitamin deficient grain. Similarly, there is the matter of the trace elements, the fineness of working of which is well pictured by the remark, that one might dissolve a teaspoonful of substance in the Gulf of Mexico, and find its traces in the water of New York harbour. Moreover, they cannot be made good merely by administering a trace of chemicals to the soil. The soil may not be able to hold them. There is the symptom of calcium deficiency in cattle. These cattle lick and chew everything – plaster, leather, their ears and tails, their stanchions, tree bark, etc. It does not help if one gives even half a ton of lime because the poor animals can no longer assimilate calcium. But give a trace of copper and they become able to assimilate calcium again.
These catalytic or dynamic effects in the living organism have been neglected while science riveted its gaze on NPK. And the result now is : “Malnutrition in the midst of Plenty.” In the States one can get anything in the way of food; there may perhaps have been a little rationing during the war, but nothing worth mentioning. One could buy anything; and yet investigations have shown that in one big city area there were 20,000 cases of malnutrition as bad as those found in Holland as a result of the war. At present only very little is known about these deficiencies. It is, however, a fact that the state of malnutrition is world wide.
The importance of trace elements was mentioned by the late Dr. Rudolf Steiner in 1923–24. Had we taken him in earnest then, instead of calling him a “mystic” and so on, we might have avoided a lot of trouble.
One example is that of magnesium deficiency. In visiting English farms, said Dr. Pfeiffer, this was everywhere evident to the trained eye. Magnesium deficiency is widespread, sometimes as a result of using too much lime. Magnesium is needed by the plant to make chlorophyll, and for the production of protein. Where it is deficient the protein values are reduced, e.g. in Kansas, the protein of wheat has declined, from 15 per cent. to 12 per cent, and now even to 8 per cent., though textbooks still quote 12 per cent. as average. Professor Dalbé, of Paris, fifteen years ago showed a map of magnesium deficient areas coinciding with the map of areas of high incidence of cancer. Egypt, for instance, has no native cancer (the whites, who eat European foods, excluded) and the soils there are not magnesium deficient; towards the magnesium-deficient regions in the north, the rates are higher. This was not put forward, said Dr. Pfeiffer, as a proof, but simply as a question. It is a challenge. Millions of dollars are appropriated in the States for cancer research, but practically nothing for research to study the relationship: soil – plant – food – cancer.
Dr. Pfeiffer had experimented with feeding white mice on different types of wheat. One group of wheat came from bio-dynamic farms and Lady Balfour’s. The other group of wheat was grown with commercial mineral fertilizer. Mice are interesting and irritable animals, with a kind of a soul life, although they have few ways of telling us about it. With their behaviour they react upon every outer influence; for instance, they foretell a coming thunderstorm. One of their ways of reacting to things is, to fight. Human beings do much the same. The mice fight till one or the other dies. In the experiments, 75 per cent. of those fed with mineralized wheat fought, as against 35 per cent. of those who received the organically grown. Gastro-intestinal diseases also were prevalent in the mineralized wheat-fed group.
Mineral deficiencies are known to cause somewhat similar effects. Magnesium deficiency leads to irritability, lack of nervous control, poor appetite, later to convulsions. Compare this with the modern picture of neurotic symptoms: the lack of pep, the difficulty in concentrating. There is a veritable menu of deficiencies such as magnesium, iron, copper, zinc, manganese. Lack of copper causes sheep to lose their natural wool and grow hair like goats. It leads to listlessness, retarded glandular action, etc. With manganese deficiency one gets bow legs. The question may be raised whether this maybe is the origin, at some past time, of the Mongolian legs and perhaps ol the Dachshund!
It is said that a high percentage of nervous disorders may be due to deficiencies and malnutrition. “Malnutrition in the midst of plenty.” but more yields, higher yields, everything geared to production on the soil, with less production of nutritious values.
The remedy is not always to replace the “deficiency.” It is necessary to restore the biological balance. In order to do so one needs a complete change in the approach of research and the basis of philosophy of life.
An example: Recently there was much talk in England about DDT in order to combat flies, mosquitoes, etc. We had this DDT fad too in U.S.A. But now the dairy farmer is warned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agents, County Agents, we call them, not to use DDT in dairy barns or on any crop which is eaten. It had been found to cause nervous disorders in test animals. It leaves an accumulative residue which stays in butter and body fat. And last but not least-the insects have become immune against it and are now nastier than ever before. Many sprays like this kill the insect all right, but poisonous residues are left. Very little is known as yet about these residual effects on human beings. Dr. Lehmann, writing in a State Journal of Medicine, gives warning about the dangers of the newest pesticides, which are dangerous unless more precautions are taken. They can cause liver and kidney necrosis and glandular disorders.
There is in fact a deficiency seldom recognized in the background -the deficiency in the ability of the human mind to cope with the whole. Instead of considering the primary cause of the trouble, we go on cutting off the limb where it aches. Something of what we need has been expressed by Goethe, in two statements :
1. That the whole is more than the sum of the parts, for in it lives something different from this sum. (One might perhaps call it the “organic idea ” and speak of the “ organizing factor.”‘)
2. That where there is analysis, there must have been synthesis. In fact, in Nature the synthesis precedes the analysis.
Why, then, do we human beings not make the swing, up the next rung of the ladder, and admit a creative and organizing mind in Nature? We cannot yet even imitate this creative mind. All we attempt from the analytical viewpoint only leads to disaster.
These and many other illustrations could show that in order to rescue the soil, to produce healthy crops, to make the farmer’s life more worth living, it is necessary to integrate all details to a concept of the organic whole. It is our health and future that is involved, and we all have to co-operate in living on the earth. In this picture of the situation are to be seen economic and social consequences, for the higher “unit” that is involved is civilization itself. When we fail to solve the problems of a living soil, of the plant, of Nature, in the small world of the farm because of a deficiency of knowledge, how can we expect to develop favourable consequences in the relationship of one man to another. Is not war, nowadays, the expression of the complete failure of our scientific mind and humanitarian attitude? We are not yet creators of life, we only split, disintegrate, analyze, break down, bombard, but do not “grow” and “synthesize” as yet.
Farming is a calling with deep responsibility. We humans learn this the hard way. In schools and universities we learn how to whip up the soil; but we have not learnt that there is a responsibility towards life and health involved in it. Unless we develop devotion again—not in a mystical sense but catering for life, health and growth, we will not save humanity. Farming is not everything, but it is a realm where we are being taught by experience. For the opposite of humanity is, to kill, to destroy. If we develop the organic approach to the processes of life we might be able to save farming, and per to some extent, civilization too. Perhaps towards the end century something of this may be possible. These things theory, but something, said Dr. Pfeiffer, which we are beginning to lay hold on in actual work with our hands, and can so lay of.
Following Dr. Pfeiffer’s lecture, Lord Portsmouth recalled how about eighteen years ago, he had first met Dr. Pfeiffer on an ill-kept compost heap in Wales! and how he had often wished since to meet him again. In the course of the lecture the experiments with mice reminded him that R. McCarrison, twenty years ago, had got somewhat parallel results with rats. Their temperaments were affected similarly.
But the problem was: how to apply practically the things we realized in this direction. One condition would be: to treat our motives in business life as we do in ethical life. For instance, white bread is better business than wholemeal. We begin now to know, however, some of its bad effects, e.g. on dogs. So there we have a motive to change that. The attitude of many supporters of the organic movement tended, perhaps, to be, that only the smoking odours of the compost heap are acceptable to God!
Examples bearing on the re-creation of right motives might be given from Africa. There one had a farm on virgin soil, where maize would have to be grown, as the staff of life for the natives. It takes nine months in the ground, however, and if the rains fall one can grow nothing after it. So one may decide on a rotation of maize, suni maize, with green manure after the sunflowers, giving valuable for cattle and human beings too. But sunflowers are hard to and the price has gone down. And the danger is, that for the so an odd shilling or two, the whole agriculture of a colony may
As regards treating things as a whole, one has in Africa to return organic matter to the soil but to contour the land, and that is only the beginning. There must be trees planted, for windbreaks: arrangements must be made so that the whole of the land grazed properly. In a virgin soil and tropical climate these necessities are more vivid. It means going out there with the intention to develop the land not out of charity to oneself, but to the generations vet unborn. Love must carry through to them: it is the only way.
The drive for soil conservation and landscaping, now coming from the U.S.S.R., has its dangers in this connection, unless we learn from it. With the right motives it can help to save the world ; namely, if it is a co-operation with Nature. Viewed as a conquest of Nature it will not help. We have to begin with the land. Its greatest crop can be the human beings who grow on it with health, faith and the desire to serve the future.
Lady Eve Balfour then spoke, pointing out how Dr. Pfeiffer’s work in Holland, and Sir Albert Howard’s appreciation of it, had been part of the inspiration that had led to the Soil Association. Dr. Pfeiffer was one of the founders of the thought behind this body.
Lady Eve wished to strike the practical note in what she said, so as to connect on to the questions that were to follow. The need for wholeness of outlook was as old as Plato, who had said: “At the present time there is nothing more needed”! She was brought up against it in her work; for instance, in the conflicting demands for trees and agriculture. There is a once fertile county in England in which the farmers have sworn to destroy every tree. The effects of this sort of thing are most evident in the Scottish highlands in the boggy area, fruits of long past deforestation. Even to-day, a mere fence, to control livestock, leads to a new growth of birch. If, there, we would learn to start again where we should never have left off, and consider the interplay of species in Nature, the quickest way to go back to work would be, to spend money on fencing.
Lady Eve knew an area in Scotland which, till the first World War, was fertile. The timber was felled then, and it was replanted with conifers. Since then the neighbouring fields either blow or flood. In fact the broad-leaved trees are indispensable, but they are not a good timber proposition !
She quoted Sir Henry Beresford Piers as being “well prepared to believe such a thing,” and as instancing a hill above Loch Ness which was adequately drained, until the birches were ringed to make way for conifers. In two years thereafter, the hill was a bog. These are examples of the need for a whole view.
The ever more lethal nature of the insecticides coming into use is very disturbing. Nineteen deaths in the past year were due directly to this. And now these materials are being used from helicopters. In one area thus sprayed, the symptoms were showing among the people living there. Moreover, immune pests are developing as a result, which is one of the reasons why the sprays have to be even more and more poisonous.
Now what results from the other method of approach, that of co-operation with Nature? An example: a grower working with organic methods had an infestation of greenfly. He hovered for twenty-four hours, wondering whether to use an insecticide, but after this time, there was an invasion of ladybirds which devoured the greenfly. That has happened in three or four examples in Lady Eve’s knowledge. Possibly the ladybirds avoided the sprayed crops! We need the new conception of balance; attacking symptoms will never solve problems of balance.
A recent report from Chute bore on the point of magnesium deficiency and protein. There they have no deficiency, and the protein of all crops is high, the milk protein being 2 per cent. above the county average. There we have deficiency prevented by organic treatment. That is the sort of thing they are chasing at Haughley too.
There they are tackling two main controversial points. Nobody, to-day, advocates doing without organic manure; the controversy turns on whether mineral fertilizers, used with organic manures, do harm. That is the one point, the second is the question, whether in humus treatments, it is necessary to include animal manure.
There followed a number of questions from the audience, to which Dr. Pfeiffer gave a joint answer. As to the reasons for excessive swarming of bees this year in Kent, he said he could speak only of what he knew, and he had little knowledge of bees. With regard to poisonous sheep dips, perhaps one must use them as long as there is nothing better.
Dehorning of cattle, of course, is done for convenience. An idealist may decide against it, but after losing valuable dairy cows through injuries he may think it over again. Personally, Dr. Pfeiffer likes a cow with horns; but he has no evidence that dehorning is harmful. If anyone had any evidence the thing could be taken up. An observation might be mentioned in that connection: Geiger counts had been made of natural gamma rays, and found to be less inside a cow’s horn. But that experiment had not been repeated.
Similarly with artificial insemination; we would like evidence of harmful effects, but it must be proven facts, not opinions. So far he had seen none. It was interesting that artificial insemination was used even in ancient Egypt, and by the Mongolians under Genghis Khan to breed their horses. Their results were not so bad! It was observed, however, that artificial insemination did not work so well with heifers. There seemed to be some need of the “natural” process at first. With older cows it worked better.
As to how to overcome the profit motive, Dr. Pfeiffer said that to the biologist the profit motive certainly can be a curse, and yet he concluded that what is biologically sound is also economically sound the farm. One needs to look at the profit motive a little closer: to put it under the microscope. Is it short-term profit at the expense of capital? For instance, heavy maize crops with fertilizers, especially growing hybrid maize, deplete the soil more than can be replaced by fertilizers. The land restoration costs more than the land is worth, so that when the Government is asked for subsidies one has to use the taxpayer’s money to restore it. There the farmer profits, but the community suffers. The economic process is not an organized unit: it is atomized. We need to learn (1) about the organic interaction of different things in it, and (2) to adopt long-term policies. In restoring a farm to fertility, one considers periods of eight to fifteen to twenty years; in forestry, where water conditions are considered, one has to think in terms of two or three centuries. And considerations of life, culture, civilization have to extend over five hundred years or more. That is the sort of thing that can heal the bad effects of the “profit motive.” The real profit is in that which promotes the continuation of civilization not in an individual getting more at the expense of others, of health, etc.
As to the great unused areas of land, they too should be included in long-term policies. Why not tie this up with the unemployment question? The Sahara, for instance, contains very fertile soils, lacking only water; why not irrigate it? Then, if these areas were brought into production, one could re-afforest worn-out submarginal agricultural soils. These things, however, need to be discussed as biological necessities, and by the human beings actually concerned in them, not by power groups, governments and the like.
Therefore the bio-dynamic farmers have first to have something to show, to convince people. The present meeting on the platform of Mr. Rolf Gardiner, Lady Balfour and Lord Portsmouth was a good beginning of integration of various interests.
About vegetarianism, Dr. Pfeiffer again stressed that he was concerned only with facts. The quality of the product, whether vegetable or meat, decides, not the question whether I should be a vegetarian or meat eater. We are not concerned with theories about it.
As to soils rich in lime, they grow good livestock, but they are hard to maintain. The clay over limestone, as in Kent, is sometimes calcium-deficient due to faulty management. Moreover, liming to excess can do more harm than good, unless there is enough organic matter present to hold it. Dr. Pfeiffer had been investigating some soils this year, where 4000 to 6000 lb. of lime per acre had been applied. Still the soils were deficient and poor crops growing tomatoes were no good-because of unbalanced conditions.
The question of how to eradicate gorse in New Zealand might be turned into one of: was the soil already good enough? If gorse grows for a couple of centuries it builds up a very good soil. Also, one might find another plant hostile to it in order to crowd it out. Observe patches where the gorse does not grow, to this end. Some weeds die out when manured : for instance, liquid urine kills poison ivy. One should study the biological balance before resorting to fire and pesticides.
With regard to scientific tests for assessing composts and soils, Dr. Pfeiffer said that the present tests were inadequate for living soils. The chemical tests miss the point that there is a yearly cycle in the availability of elements, phosphate, for instance, is high in May and October, low in August and December. The yearly fluctuation is sometimes greater than the differences between different fields. Then availability varies under different plants; that of potash under maize is entirely different from that under beans. Then one needs to know the physical and colloidal structure of the soil, the percentage of humus. Tests for micro-life in the soil, too, should, besides the mere bacteria count, point out whether the soil process is one of upbuilding or of breaking down. It is like analysing a two-shilling piece, when the real point that matters is, is the person who earned it going to waste it or does he need it to pay a debt ?
So a soil analysis ought to show what process is going on in it; of upbuilding or decay; whether humus is being broken down or whether it is stable. The study of soils can tell much more than is revealed only in the NPK concept. Recently we learned through it how to transform city garbage into humus in six to twelve days, cow manure, in the laboratory, into humus with an increase of nitrogen, in two to three days. The thing is, to look at the life-process, not at mere figures.
Human health relationships are so complicated that, although one would rather not do so, one needs to make animal experiments. But Dr. Pfeiffer likes to reorganize a farm that is run down, a process which may take four to five years, during which the soil becomes less acid, the pH going from 5.5 to 6.5 in two or three years and the organic matter increasing, in three or four years, from 1 per cent. to 4 per cent, or so; as was the case on his own farm. Contagious abortion disappears in the herd, and one has something which is not easily put into tables of figures, but which can be shown as a whole. Rudolf Steiner spoke of the farm as an individuality, with a personality of its own. If that can be achieved one can restore the farm to health in no time. This sort of evidence is really the best testing method. It is like the case of a sick person given up by the doctors, who then recovers. There are the X-ray pictures, taken before and afterwards, which fail to explain it, and one just says: “How wonderful.” Similarly with the farm; that as a whole is the best test organ.
Mr. Rolf Gardiner then rose to sum up and thank the lecturer. There was one question Dr. Pfeiffer had not answered: that of manpower on the land. Mr. Gardiner pointed out the land hunger in the world, and the vicious cycle of modernization and mechanization, which pushes people off the soil. Faulkner’s work on mulching and restoring delinquent soils may indicate a turning point; from now till the end of the century we may get a great movement back to the soil in search of health and wholeness. The present dislike of hard work is attributable to food grown on delinquent land. He looked forward to a coming time of healing for the soil and for man.
Dr. Pfeiffer echoed the call: Forward to the Land! As to mechanization, in the States one was forced to mechanize. Here and on the Continent the bio-dynamic methods should still help the peasant farmer. The peasant farmer is the backbone of agriculture.
In America it was a challenge: to work with Nature and to mechanize; experience has proven that this is possible. But even over here, a bit more mechanization on some farms could do a lot of good. Increased mechanization, however, is expensive. But any rightly done mechanized process can help, e.g. spreading manure, chopping wastes, etc.
The farmer, alone, however, cannot solve the whole problem. Unfortunately good land is so unevenly distributed on this earth. The proper social balance is necessary. During the depression of 1934-36, in America, farmers were working twelve hours a day while in the neighbouring towns men were drawing unemployment pay.
The meeting closed with a hearty tribute from the audience to the lecturer.