Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 77, 1948-49
This text is also available in PDF
(1 MB) Opens in new window
– 316 –

The Relation of the Health of the Soil to the Health of Man.

It's a very odd thing.
As odd as can be,
That whatever Miss T. eats
Turns into Miss T.
Porridge and apples.
Mince, muffins, and mutton,
Jam, junket, jumbles.
Not a rap, not a button
It matters, the moment
They're out of her plate
(Though shared by Miss Butcher
And sour Mr. Bate).
Tiny and cheerful
And neat as can be,
Whatever Miss T. eats
Turns into Miss T.
Walter de la Mare.

This address is more of a plea for a new attitude of mind than a scientific discourse upon the topic of the title.

– 317 –

I entered as a student of Otago University in 1910, full of the spirit of the times as interpreted in its most stimulating sense by the novels of H. G. Wells. Progress and Prosperity. Progress, the emancipation of man through the application of science, and a steady increase in his prosperity.

It is noteworthy that this feeling was most developed in the Anglo-Saxons, who. whilst Continental States were at war for religious or dynastic reasons, were busily occupied in acquiring large tracts of the earth's surface, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century provided a cheap food basis for an altogether unwarranted optimism on the subject of the advantages of the application of science to food production as well as the production of all things from the soil—timber, fibres, vegetable oils, resins, etc.

Prosperity and Progress therefore could be claimed as the slogan, and we in New Zealand who studied science hopefully in those days, felt that we lived in a far-off, insular farming community as yet unaware of what really could be done by science.

Then came Serajevo, the black-edged news-extras pasted on the veranda posts, and presently war.

Following this sudden, dramatic and disastrous collapse of the Progress and Prosperity era, came the era of Safety First. Security was to be secured almost at all costs—but security for what? For trade and a sort of whimsical and less confident return to progress and prosperity. The security sought, however, was unrelated to that real security which to-day, after a generation of folly, becomes ever more evident. I am going to tell you that this real security is actually security in possession of the very basis of maintaining life itself. This present age, rapidly following upon the inter-war period which can justly be described as the hangover after the preceding boom and bust, is literally the age of self-support and maintenance—survival if you like.

There is no need for me to relate the dismal story of starvation and malnutrition in the world to-day. We have become so inured to figures that we no longer distinguish between a million or a billion. What is, however, worse than this mental blindness is the overwhelming tendency to ascribe our present terrestrial plight to war. Modern war is, in fact, a result of causes, one of the most potent of which is a deep-rooted failure to realise that both the Progress and Prosperity and the Security slogans as such were false, and that only an outlook based upon self-support and maintenance can give us back purpose, real health, both physical and mental, and an appreciation of those values without which human happiness is impossible. Any return to a belief in the other shibboleths as such will merely accelerate the process of our ultimate obliteration.

These are strong words, and a Science Congress may not seem the appropriate place to utter them. On the contrary, I think that this is the only place in which such a re-examination of the position can properly be made, for science has been blamed and is still blamed, in my opinion most unreasonably, for most of our modern social ills.

It is my intention to deal with the mis-application of scientific thinking as it affects only one aspect of modern life. I refer to food production in relation to basic health. Obviously, there is need for clear thinking and plain speaking in other departments of human affairs, but this is one that affects us all, and most fundamentally.

Before leaving Otago University I was occupied, in association with Professor Drennan, upon an investigation into the causes of endemic goitre in that part of the Dominion, and we had already been forced to retrace our steps to the very soil from which food in goitrous areas was grown. Here it was found that a much lower iodine content of both foodstuffs and soil seemed to be related to the distribution of the disease; a full elucidation of which was made by Professor—now Sir Charles—Hercus, who, with his wife, followed on with the research in succeeding years, during which I was prosecuting my investigations in America and Europe.

I mention this first because it has local significance and secondly because it illustrates my present thesis by proving how the outlook of the period directed the nature of the research.

Let me quote from Erwin Schrodinger, the famous contemporary mathematical physicist, in support of my contention that science is a fashion of the times: “The legitimate data of Physical Science are always and exclusively those arrived at by means of experiment. But consider the number of experiments which have actually furnished the data on which the structure of Physical Science is based. That number is undoubtedly very large. But it is infinitesimal

– 318 –

when compared with the number of experiments that might have been carried out, but never actually have been. Therefore, a selection has been made in choosing the raw material on which the present structure of science is built. That selection must have been influenced by circumstances that are other than purely scientific. And thus far, Physical Science cannot claim to be absolutely independent of its environment.” If that can be said of Physical Science, what of the other so-called less exact sciences?

In the case of endemic goitre, our outlook was based upon the pathology of disease. We were interested in the iodine because it was a remarkable essential constituent of the thyroid secretion and was, moreover, very readily estimated by chemical analysis, and also because it was an inorganic element coming only from food stuffs and therefore the soil.

At no time during that period, or for that matter until recently, did I ever look upon the soil from the standpoint of its significance to health. For one thing, health, as such, from a medical standpoint is purely a state of absence of disease, and the dictionary definition I am sure would never occur to any medical practitioner suddenly asked to define it in, shall we say, a radio quiz competition.

The same outlook dominates the approach to plant or animal diseases (in so far as they are not reducible to bacterial, virus, or parasitic causes). So we get the ever-growing list of so-called trace elements, essential, it is said, to plant life and growth.

Again, finding that food requirements can be assessed in terms of quantities of protein, fat and carbohydrate, we were quite content to base the whole of our medical, and even sociological, estimates upon these, and the total energy value expressed as calories, until Hopkins introduced the conception of accessory food factors, notwithstanding the fact that Land had fully established the importance of this aspect of foodstuffs in the eighteenth century, by following up an earlier practical observation of Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins in the sixteenth century.

In those times diseases were visitations of God, and elixirs and prayers were the fashion, but note the ease with which we pass in our thinking from the pre-vitamin to the vitamin stage, and yet remain just as dogmatic and self-satisfied. For if the discovery of the vitamins and their tangible demonstration, chemical isolation, and synthesis proves anything important, it most certainly is not that absence of one or other of them causes this or that disease, but, on the contrary, that the desirable condition called health requires something essentially complex and vital in the foodstuffs upon which we subsist.

At the present moment the medical profession as well as the bio-chemists are interested in vitamins only in this fragmentary way. So much is this the case that I am sure that 99 medical students out of 100, if asked what foodstuff to recommend to provide vitamin C, would prescribe citrus fruit, whether such were available or no. The potato would most certainly never receive a mention.

Although iodine deficiency in soil and food is undoubtedly a factor in the causation of endemic goitre, it is by no means the only one, for this disease can occur independently of such a deficiency, and appears to result as much from the intake of other materials in food and drink, such, for example, as fluorine, which in some manner adversely influence the absorption or utilisation of the iodine by the body.

Nevertheless, it is still a matter of soil and food that is in question, and Sir Robert McCarrison has shown how micro-organisms in the drinking water can influence the absorption of iodine from the intestine. That the organisms in the intestinal tract are involved in the absorption of iodine is demonstrated by the fact that sulphaguanidine, which is a recently introduced preparation for destroying dysentery organisms, effectively stops the formation of Vitamin K by intestinal flora, and thus indirectly influences the absorption of iodine and causes hyperplasia of thyroid gland in animals otherwise not receiving this vitamin in the diet.

This observation, like the discovery made during the recent war, emphasises the complexity of our symbiosis with our intestinal flora. Dysentery patients receiving sulphaguanidine treatment, and at the same time on a low dietary intake of the Vitamin B complex, often quite rapidly developed beri beri—a disease allegedly due to deficiency in Vitamin B. This, it appears, is, like the previously mentioned thyroid disease, due to suppression of all the bacterial flora by the sulpha drug, and thus we discover that these humble occupants of our

– 319 –

intestine can and do often supply adequate Vitamin B to maintain health on a diet otherwise deficient in that food factor.

Our investigations on the feeding of prisoners of war have established without a doubt that beri beri has been fatally rife among troops receiving what is officially recognised as adequate Vitamin B, but inadequate riboflavin, and you doubtless are aware of the crucial experiment conducted upon a Boston medical man who went on a diet free from Vitamin C for six months, whose blood and tissues in the first ten days and thereafter were shown to contain none of this essential food factor, and who nevertheless developed absolutely no signs of scurvy. His dietary did, however, contain large amounts of all the other known vitamins.

All these, and many similar observations made in recent times, serve to demonstrate that researches based upon pathology of disease can lead to over simplification.

Thus endemic goitre has a simple explanation in iodine deficiency in soil and food; scurvy and beri beri, in foods deficient in Vitamin C and B, respectively. In actual fact, the matter is immensely more complex than this, and, as I have indicated, the time is come when a whole view, rather than a partial one, is necessary.

What is the essential weakness in the approach to the problems mentioned? It is the firm belief that a simple chemical explanation will prove to be correct and complete.

Medical Bacteriology, too, has exerted a powerful influence. Engrossed in the germ theory of disease, we have failed to grasp the idea of an ecological balance between all living organisms, high and low. So it comes about that we could naively suppose that the teeming life of our intestinal contents could be little else than an aesthetic embarrassment. Sulphaguanidine has banished that view, and it required a war, and large numbers of successive observations of cases, to provide adequate and convincing evidence.

So, too, it comes about that we can ignore the teeming bacterial and fungal life of our productive soil and imagine that a simple chemical explanation of plant growth is the true one. The pity of it is that the immediate results of application of the chemical explanation to practical agriculture proved so lucrative to all concerned. It is to this basic aspect of our health and being, therefore, that I wish to draw attention in the light of the criticism of our scientific outlook which I have endeavoured to justify, by quoting some of the more outstanding and relevant examples.

If, as in the case of simple goitre, we are dealing with a disease the origin of which is traceable to the soil and foodstuffs derived therefrom, is it at all unlikely that robust health is largely dependent upon the food we eat, and therefore upon the soil in which it grows? In the one case we see only a swelling in the neck as the outward sign of this failure in iodine assimilation.

You are all acquainted with the cobalt deficiency which causes failure in the maturation of the red blood corpuscles of sheep—a widespread condition in South Australia, and I believe not unknown in this country. In Western Australia, however, a much more complex stock-feeding problem has arisen, and it is one which has particular significance for this thesis that soil and food and health are interlocked. A population of some one and a half million merino sheep, including many valuable stud flocks, is involved. It is pastured on a variety of subterranean clover which was found to grow luxuriantly in this area where the stock-carrying power of the native fodder plants was lower, and therefore less remunerative. This clover has spread until it comprises some 80 per cent, of the fodder plant available to the sheep. At first, results measured by the usual financial yardstick, were excellent. Then, as time progressed—the period involved is some twenty years—the fecundity of the flocks showed steady diminution, ending in extensive losses of both ewes and lambs owing to difficulty in lambing time.

Investigations by Professor Underwood have established the following facts: (a) There is dystocia due to uterine weakness, and to remarkable overgrowth of the lining epithelium or endometrum of the uterus. Uterine inversion is not uncommon. (b) There is a regression of male organs to female type. The mammary glands become well developed, and the uterus masculinus, which is normally so small as only to admit the head of a pin, becomes in some instances as large as the clenched fist. (c) Extracts made from the clover when injected into experimental animals produce similar changes in the sex glands. (d) The

– 320 –

same changes can be produced by continued treatment with the female sex hormone—oestradiol.

Here, then, in West Australia, and on a lesser scale in South-east South Australia, we have diminishing fertility, and even failure of normal physiological reproductive functions, on a dramatic scale, in an animal species restricted in its dietary to practically one fodder plant of the clover species. I wish at this stage to emphasise the fact that seven generations of sheep have been necessary to demonstrate this final fact. Intensive investigation is in progress to determine whether this result is due to a normal growth of this particular clover, or whether the influence of the clover is due in turn to a soil deficiency, but whatever may be the explanation one thing is evident. The changes in the sheep have come about over a period of years, and the main factor has been a steady displacement of other fodder plants by subterranean clover during the period. There is some evidence that, provided the sheep get some other pasture for a change, the changes mentioned do not occur, and this may indicate compensating factors in other plants, but whether this is so or not, the food of the animals is the cause of their remarkable change in fundamental physiological function.

It is, of course, no new discovery, this isolation of a sex hormone from plants. Nor is it news to relate the astonishing influence of the male sex hormone on the growth and development of plants. It is twelve years since I saw demonstrated the premature growth of lilies of the valley, which bloomed in one half the normal period of life.

On the other hand, it is highly important news that was given me after I had lectured upon this topic at Mildura recently, by Professor Lewis, of Melbourne University. As Architect of the Great Western Railway, he dealt, as part of his activities, with a London market-gardener, who employed 200 men, and thus farmed in quite a big way. He had purchased stable manure from the Great Western for many years, and in course of conversation told Professor Lewis that he always used as much manure from the stables of undertakers as he could get, and that he willingly paid more for it. This apparently unscientific fact finds an explanation to-day which it could not have found twelve years ago in terms of ammonium salts and phosphates. The explanation lies in the fact that the convention of the period demanded fine, sleek, high-stepping black animals to draw the hearse. These were stallions, and that is the explanation of the efficiency of their manure in terms of testosterone.

The Agricultural Research Council of Great Britain has shown its appreciation of the biological factor in soil structure and behaviour by the establishment at the University College, Cardiff, of a unit of Soil Metabolism Research under the direction of the distinguished biochemist, J. H. Quastel. Knowing Quastel personally, I am the more interested in his appointment, because he was essentially a chemist who realised that biology offered a field of study both unexplored and full of possibilities from a chemical standpoint. He came to this soil work after many years of biochemical study in the field of bacterial growth and later, of human brain disease. Thus, as Schrodinger pointed out, he chose an experimental approach to the study of soil, which would have been impossible for a pure chemist, and it is pure chemistry that dominates agriculture to-day so far as the soil is concerned.

Quastel treated the soil as a living thing. The very name of the Research Unit is based upon the conception that soil is a living structure in which, as a result of the vital activity of living cells, chemical changes take place. Already the results of this new approach to the study of soil has yielded valuable, if not astonishing, results.

Last year a paper from this research unit established the fact that when a solution of manganous salts is perfused through soil, oxidation of the manganese takes place almost exclusively by bacterial processes. The rate of the reaction is autocatalytic. The rate is optimal at a specific concentration of manganese, and sterilisation of the soil by heat stops the phenomenon, as do biological poisons. These are criteria of a living process, and it is not surprising therefore that the addition of soluble carbohydrate to soils containing manganese dioxide increases the production of available bivalent manganese ions, because the carbohydrate stimulates bacterial growth, by providing a source of energy. This discovery is of great significance because manganese deficiency of plants can and does occur in soils containing manganese dioxide, and the only source of carbohydrate in soils is decaying vegetable matter.

We have long been acquainted with the fact that the growth of legumes is associated with the growth of nodules on their rootlets—nodules containing

– 321 –

nitrogen-fixing bacteria. We are not, however, so likely to be widely informed on the details of this strange symbiosis of plant and bacterium. From 1886, when the phenomenon was identified, until 1930, it was believed that these bacteria could fix nitrogen apart from the plant. From then on, it has been known that neither host plant nor bacterium can apart affect this remarkable chemical change, and nothing is to-day known of the nature of their living relationship. In 1940, however, it was demonstrated that the developing rootlets of legumes attract these bacteria to them by some means, and that as the bacteria approach, the rootlets first become kinked in the neighbourhood of the bacteria, and at the site of this kinking the bacteria invade the rootlets and there multiply and form the nodule. The cause of the kinking is indole-acetic acid secreted by the bacteria as a metabolic product.

Now the existence of indole-acetic acid is transient owing to destruction by other soil bacteria, but it must reach a concentration of 1 in 100,000,000 if the initial curling of the rootlet is to be caused, and without this, these bacteria cannot invade the plant tissue. On the other hand, should higher concentrations of indole-acetic acid accumulate, germination of the legume is inhibited. This work indicates how important living metabolic systems in soil are from the viewpoint of soil fertility, not to mention productivity.

Mention has already been made to the influence of carbohydrate on bacterial growth in the soil. It has been demonstrated that nitrogen fixation by Clostridium pasteurianum and Azotobacter—the two non-symbiotic soil bacteria—is inhibited by ammonium salts and accelerated by carbohydrate. This means that fixation of atmospheric nitrogen in the soil is favoured by plant residues in the soil, and inhibited or prevented by the addition of ammonium salts or nitrates, a significant fact in our subsequent consideration of methods of soil management and food production. Clostridium, moreover, loses its power to fix nitrogen after cultivation on artificial media—a power which is restored by culture on soil; the cause of this is unknown. Azotobaoter, on the other hand, does not lose its power to fix nitrogen after prolonged artificial culture, but it does require traces of molybdenum or vanadium if it is to fix nitrogen. Since Clostridium and Azotobacter, are the main non-symbiotic nitrogen-fixing organisms, it is thus seen that their function as fertilising agents depends not only upon the style of soil management, but also upon the presence of trace elements, the function of which assumes a new significance to agriculture in consequence and one which lies outside the soil chemists' conception.

When it is realised that almost the whole of the organic matter of certain arid soils consists of Azotobacter (900 million organisms per gram) and that an acre of good arable soil can contain six tons of organisms, excluding worms and insects, it becomes difficult to accept the view that dosing the soil with chemical fertiliser is an adequate answer to the problem of plant feeding, pasture management and food production, whilst the brief reference made so far to living-soil factors influencing both availability of essential elements and plant growth, serves to show that the roots of plants search for food not in an environment of inert test-tube chemistry but in a veritable microcosm, the proper study of which is biological and ecological.

We have already seen that science is a fashion of the times. This is not only true within the departments of science, but is also true of scientific thinking relative to dominant social activity. So far as the soil is concerned, scientific thought has travelled for a century on purely chemical lines, and biology has entered only as an approach to the study of diseases. This particular application of the science of chemistry received peculiar impetus in an age of growing industrialism when population expanded rapidly in an urban environment. Cheap food meant cheap goods, and these were secured by expenditure of soil capital in the form of organic stores of humus, bacteria, fungi, and the dead and decaying remains of plants that had for centuries grown on the virgin soils exploited by the colonist.

The growth of urban population increased the severity of epidemics, and the consequent application of the new science of bacteriology to epidemiology led to concentration upon public health and hygiene, and the development of water-borne sewage disposal. Industrial chemistry provided chemical fertilisers, and the attitude towards traditional farming and the use of animal manures became frankly contemptuous.

Though the advance of Public Health measures lowered the death rate from epidemic disease, and increased the expectation of life, there were increasing signs of deterioration in health, even when considered merely as absence of disease.

– 322 –

The medical statistics of recruiting for the services continued to show increasing grounds for misgiving, and with the outbreak of the 1914–18 war the rejections both in England and the U.S.A. excited concern, whilst recruitment for the 1939–45 war disclosed a much worse position, as I know from personal information given by Colonel Rowntree. medical officer in charge of recruiting.

The Governor-General of the Dominion has more than once spoken publicly upon the evidence which he has seen as a fighting soldier, and his observations have excited comment outside the country. No thoughtful citizen can, if he reads and examines the evidence, be satisfied with the present situation, when we are preoccupied with diseases of plant, animal and man almost to the exclusion of health as such. There never has been such a sale for medicines, insecticides, parasiticides and the like, and although there is a complexity of causes, it is certain that there is a paramount one, and that is disease of the soil itself. There are very extensive areas of rich land in the U.S.A which are to-day a problem in restoration following poisoning from sprays used to keep the plant crops free from disease—so far has it gone. First in New Zealand and now in the United Kingdom, Australia and United States of America, the attention of the Government is being rigorously directed towards the treatment of disease and the provision of either cheap or free medicines.

In Australia, we have a nation-wide National Fitness Campaign, and this Government-sponsored activity aims at making youth fit by physical exercise, whilst on the other hand, it is becoming a matter for surprise to find anyone with his natural teeth after the age of thirty-five years, the majority having already lost them in their 'teens or twenties. Yet we have school dental services. Although these activities are necessary, they are not dealing with causes. Faulty motor-car construction cannot be reasonably dealt with by increasing the number of repair stations or placing them under Government control.

Our very attitude towards food is changing, the main considerations being price and convenience of preparation. The war disclosed the disconcerting fact that the food pattern had been so altered by commercial and urban influences in Australia and U.S.A. that it required colossal effort to achieve any change if only in the interests of health and of military strategy. This can be possible only because we are so largely out of touch with the very foundation of our vital energy, namely, the soil.

Among those races who have for one reason or another retained their connection with the soil, and where, in particular, nothing is lost from the soil owing to a closed cycle of farm operation and domestic life, the population carried per square mile reaches as much as 1,800—three times that carried by the most improved farm land in the United States.

My recent visit to Japan surprised me in spite of my reading upon the subject. The most unpromising soil and the most difficult terrain notwithstanding, food is produced, two crops per year, by this closed cycle of operations, and a population supported in a state of health and happiness which is astonishing when the ruined cities, the destroyed industries, and the millions of displaced persons is taken into consideration. Here I find, and am authoritatively supported, little evidence of malnutrition. Such as does exist is less than 1 per cent, and that mainly beri beri. Could our agriculture do as much for us with even our wretchedly small populations by comparison? And in countries free from the tremendous soil-destroying cataclysms that beset Japan—earthquake and typhoon. Their efforts at soil conservation alone are staggering, in their obvious rejection of money cost as a measure of what should be done.

King, one-time head of the United States Soil Service, has written extensively on this and quotes an instance of a peach orchard with trees planted in lows and two feet apart, with ten rows of cabbages, two rows of Windsor beans and one of garden peas—thirteen rows of vegetables flanked by fruit trees in twenty-two feet—all luxuriant and strong. This is the sort of picture I saw, when I expected to find a broken, confused and even starving people; and the central fact is that the bulk of the people are peasants, and all of them, whether in country or town, grow foodstuffs, using as the fertilising agent human excreta fermented with straw and garden refuse.

Must we painstakingly retrace our steps to an ancient traditional means of agriculture—the only one which has led to the survival of civilisations so old as those of the orient, compared with which ours are infantile growths Must we discover auxins, hormones, catalysts, and antibodies and after a flat refusal to accept the evidence of their potent actions, finally build a whole literature

– 323 –

about them? Must we do all this and refuse to take the simple step of perceiving that they are all involved in the life and function of the soil which maintains us?

We could never succeed in keeping all these fascinating facts in separate compartments if the scientific fashion of the times were not determined by size, speed, power and money value. If quality of life formed the basis of our culture, science itself would conform; and such facts as these which I propose now to recount would find their interpretation in a fuller knowledge of the meaning of health, whether of plant or animal.

The Spanish moss which in Florida grows on anything including bare copper electric wires, has only holding roots—not roots that absorb nutriment. This latter comes from rain-borne elements. The ash of this plant contains 17% iron, 36% silicic acid, 1.85% phosphoric acid, whilst the rain-water of the region where it grows contains only 1.65% iron, 0.01% silicic acid, and no phosphoric acid. There are other plants, too, which like this one can extract relatively large quantities of inorganic constituents from exceedingly dilute solutions, but in different degree though receiving the same rain.

Copper sulphate in a dilution of 1/1,000,000,000 inhibits the growth of algae. In a dilution of 1/700,000,000 it inhibits the germination of wheat, and 1/800,000,000 stops growth. In the soil it is a powerful bacterial poison, yet oats can contain up to 0.9%, wheat and rye up to 0.01%, potatoes .4 mg. per kilo, and one can find it present in fruits ranging from oranges to mustard, and from melons to pine cones. Yet the soil of the region may contain so little as almost to escape detection.

The total mass of a plant may consist of more than 90% water and 2 to 5% mineral matter. The remainder comes from the CO2 of the atmosphere. This CO2 comes from animals and from breakdown of soil organic matter by bacteria, and its high concentration at the soil level is an essential factor in the growth of seedlings. Increased CO2 in the atmosphere has no effect on subsequent growth of the plant.

If camomile is grown with wheat in a ratio of 20%, the resulting grain is small and light. If only 1 % of this weed is present, the wheat is greatly benefited, producing larger and heavier grain than in a pure crop.

These facts, quoted at random like the one related to me by Professor Lewis about the manure from undertakers' stables, are reminders of the functional importance of the very minute, and it is this functional influence of living creatures, small and large, upon one another that is the subject of ecology, and that is incomprehensible to the purely specialist outlook.

We scientists must pay more attention to the fact that even our scientific thinking is subject to influence by the prevailing social outlook, and in so far as we may be engaged upon investigations in relation to human nutrition and food production (which are inseparable) we should realise that quality of life, whether plant or animal, is not capable of measurement by commercial standards of value. In this way we will come to appreciate the truth of the statement that a healthy soil produces healthy plants and animals. In so far as these form the basis of human nutrition, healthy humans will result. Failure to appreciate this influence upon our thinking leads inevitably to a belief in dispensing of health from medical. dental, and pharmaceutical services.

A friend of mine, who is the third generation of a famous farming family in New England, New South Wales, has restored his pastures from the state to which they had degenerated, after some thirty years of application of inorganic fertiliser under direction of the prevailing authoritative view. To-day, his pastures stand out among those of his neighbours, even his worst country carrying a splendid mixed fodder cover by comparison. He has merely carried out the advice of Sir George Stapledon, the noted English pasture authority, and has after one application of phosphate, lightly ploughed in the pasture and kept to a system of long rotations, resting the land and building up the organic content of his soils. He always gets top price for his animals and his wool, and his land carries more sheep to the acre than anyone else's. He has the lowest disease incidence in the countryside. He has, in fact, watched his worm infestation diminish as his pastures improved, and his farm records are as fine a contribution to scientific literature as any that earned academic fame.

Orthodox agriculture experts come and view his broad acres and cannot distinguish a special orthodox superphosphate test field from his non-super field. They make no comment. He collects his excellent returns for his farming and is content to see his carrying power steadily increase and the health of his beasts with it. When I asked him what his neighbours say, he replied: “They say,

– 324 –

Oh, the Colonel can afford to do it.” Note the influence of the prevailing outlook—financial expediency.

Here in New Zealand, eighteen months ago, I saw a redeemed citrus farm in Bay of Islands which, despite unprecedented drought, had received no watering even at the end of February, and had had no application of insecticide. All the local citrus growers took me to see this orchard as an object lesson, for they had been watering since November, and all had used red oil. Yet these trees were healthier, and being a citrus grower myself, I could judge. What was the secret? The owner had trenched the ground two feet deep round each tree, and had filled the trench with compost—an artificially produced organic fertiliser, rich in humus, and one which imitates the age-old method of the Chinese.

There is much that could be said by way of further illustration of the connection between a healthy living soil and healthy plant and animal life. For too long human nutrition has been a piecemeal study of chemists and biochemists, when, after all, it really is a matter of farming and of the raising of healthy human stock, just as we can raise healthy farm stock. Having been misled by a scientific fashion of the times, in respect of farm stock, is there any wonder that we have been even more misled over human beings. Concerning the former, there is no more remarkable testimony than that of Mr. F. Sykes, one of the most noted dairy-herd and horse breeders in Britain, and concerning the latter, there is the arresting report of the Cheshire Panel Committee.

Despite the annual bestowal of blue ribbons for his stock and despite the high prices paid for the beasts. Mr. Sykes shut down his famous farm when he discovered that they were, notwithstanding, all infected with tuberculosis. Similarly, the Cheshire doctors, after administration of the National Insurance Scheme for twenty-five years, reported that deterioration in health was proceeding at increasing rate. Both blamed the feeding on the one hand by forced and special foods, and the other by loss of food quality.

Napoleon, waiting for the end at St. Helena, made a commentary on this that deserves to be repeated at the end of this discourse: “Agriculture is the soul, the foundation of the kingdom; industry ministers to the comfort and happiness of the population; foreign trade is the super-abundance; it allows the exchange of the surplus of agriculture and industry. Foreign trade, which in its results is infinitely inferior to agriculture, was an object of secondary importance to my mind. Foreign trade ought to be the servant of agriculture and home industry; these last should never be subordinated to foreign trade.”

Discussion.

Sir Theodore Rigg considered that the speaker had over-simplified the whole problem and that there was much more to it than had been stated. He pointed out that in China with the cultivation of the soya bean, nitrogen was brought into the soil. The Chinese were doing their best in regard to soil conservation, but probably their production was no more than that from the experimental plot at Rothamstead, which had been used continuously for the growing of wheat over the last sixty years. He stated that composting on its own could not replace the necessary minerals and trace elements which might be lacking or in short supply in the soil, and evidenced cobalt shortage in certain areas of the country which could not be made up by composting, however intensive, but where the addition of an extremely small amount of cobalt by “artificial” means would make the country perfectly satisfactory. Moreover, similar deficiencies could be remedied by artificially adding boron compounds to soils where this was in short supply. He stated that the comparatively high Chinese production in those areas where there was a satisfactory alluvial soil, warmth, and moisture could be increased by 25% by the addition of a little phosphate. He agreed that soil study could not be regarded entirely as chemical and that the micro-biological approach was necessary. In regard to bacteria alone, he pointed out that the “soil sickness” affecting tomato production in Nelson could be cured by sterilising the soil by means of steam or other means. This killed off at least a very high percentage of the bacteria present in the soil and thus allowed the return to that particular soil of productivity which had been greatly reduced by too high a bacterial content. He could not agree that the use of artificial fertilisers should be discontinued.

Sir Stanton Hicks, in reply, stated that he was not against the idea of using artificial fertilisers, but was inveighing against the waste of phosphorus which was so greatly needed by the soil, and which at present was almost entirely poured into the sea. He stated that good hygiene was not necessarily incompatible with the preservation of our wasted phosphorus. Composting kept the

– 325 –

soil in good heart, but even if our human waste was preserved there would still be a need for the addition of phosphate, because so much was taken away from the soil, exported and lost to us. In regard to bush sickness, he was not convinced that this was merely due to deficiency of cobalt, and felt we could not give the ultimate answer merely by adding little bits of this and that, here and there, where these were found by chemical means to be in short supply He pointed out the virtue possessed by certain plants of collecting and concentrating elements which were present in infinitesimally small amount in their surroundings—a property which might be used to much greater extent than at present in remedying deficiencies.

Dr. McMeakin stated that he himself would be speaking out of turn on any medical matter, and he considered Sir Stanton Hicks, though an eminent man in the medical world, to be speaking without adequate authority on the subject he had chosen, and suggested he should see what was really being done by agriculturists in this country, as he was apparently unaware of the actual facts of the case. He stated that there was no country anywhere where comparatively so much was being done to use organic fertilisers as in New Zealand.

Sir Stanton Hicks replied that he was interested in human beings and not in the amount of butter-fat per acre which could be produced. He stated that the community in general was much more interested in the amount of butterfat, wool and meat which could be produced per acre and exported, than with the amount of stock, human and otherwise, which could be raised and maintained satisfactorily on a particular area of land. This was wrong and what was badly needed was a change in outlook, particularly so in the scientific field. The essential needs of this country were: more people per acre, more men, women and children self-supporting on the land—not more men in the town and fewer on the farms, but vice versa. He instanced the conditions in China and Japan, where the value of the land was in the number of human beings who could be raised on it, a matter in which it was very successful. He considered that the wars of the future, as the wars of the past, will be decided essentially by manpower, a point which we should take deeply to heart.

Mr. Keyes pointed out that the produce of the land which was exported from New Zealand was being used for maintaining people in Britain.

Sir Stanton Hicks stated that it was impossible satisfactorily for the land to maintain a group of people at a distance. The land must support the people living on it. He stated that he was greatly disappointed to find that, in spite of the evident need for home-produced food during the recent war, England still had so much unused land, that good land was still raising nothing but sheep, and that so much food had to be imported. He compared Japan, where no land on which anything would grow was allowed to remain unused, and where, even in the ruins of Hiroshima, every little piece of land was again being cultivated and nothing was allowed to waste.

The Chairman, Sir Charles Hercus, finally closed the discussion, pointing out that at the recent meeting in England, attended by economists from all over the world, one of the things which had struck him most had been the universal anxiety over the standard of living, the appalling malnutrition, and the amount of preventable disease present amongst these people quoted by Sir Stanton Hicks as living entirely on their own land, and using an agricultural method of the type recommended by him. He considered that we in New Zealand would not be happy to change our type of life for theirs.