The New Truth

by Eliot Coleman, Four Season Farm, Harborside, Maine


Eliot Coleman

On Saturdays during the summer, I take the opportunity to chat with our farm stand (farm shop) 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 at the university was correct.

It took over four decades for that popularly-accepted, 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 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 we should be questioning?

My first target is obvious; the acceptance by the medical profession of pharmaceutical drugs as the 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 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 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. . . 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.”

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 newly appreciated 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, in addition to eating the flavorful 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 in general, the same as I have been trying to nourish the soil of my farm with the horticultural equivalent – 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 success of organic farming in overcoming the unquestioning acceptance of agricultural chemicals gives us hope that a different path is possible for human health. If our health professionals were to prevail in establishing for the general public, positive health-focused eating practices in parallel with the positive-plant-and-livestock-health-focused farming practices of organic agriculture, the value to human well-being would be incalculable.