Someone recently lent me Dick Taverne’s The March of Unreason (Oxford, 2005). It looked a good read, and seemed one too,  from the introduction and the first couple of chapters.

Taverne seems to know his stuff, and puts forward a convincing argument. It’s an important subject he’s tackling: superstition and dodgy dogma are a threat to us all. Ignorance is always an enemy. What we don’t know we have to take on trust, and so often, with politicians, press and big business, that trust has been knowingly, willingly, cyncically and other adverbs, abused.

It was when I got to the chapter on Organic Farming that my doubts set in – my trust in Taverne was shaken. I know a little bit about Organic Gardening. I was chairman of a local gardening and farming group for a time, during the foot and mouth crisis at the beginning of the century, co-incidentally!

I came to organic gardening through a purely personal interest in pedology. That’s the study of soils, in case you haven’t come across the term. I’d been reading various texts on it for quite a few years, and found the concepts underlying the science, especially the way that plant communities develop in a heirarchy towards a climatically determined optimum, fascinating. Even as I write I can sense myself wanting to go on and explain the basic idea of a ‘sere’, but for your sakes, I won’t!

That reading led me to a character who is said by some to be the ‘father’ of the organic movement. Not some airy-fairy hippie drop out, this was the scientist, (a Cambridge first in the Nat.Sciences Tripos) and for many years the government’s chief botanist in India, Sir Albert Howard. Sent out to India to teach the natives to farm, he came back with a series of beliefs, based upon his observations of the farming practices he encountered, and was in charge of. Included in these was the observation that cattle raised organically had an immunity to Foot and Mouth. You may remember that the organic movement pushed this very hard during the crisis. You don’t? Neither do I, because it didn’t, and that raises some interesting issues.

Howard’s ideas were popularised by Lady Eve Balfour, which brings us back to Taverne, who mentions her. Nowhere though, does he mention Sir Albert Howard himself. Two possibilities occur. One is that he hasn’t heard of Howard, which would shake my faith in his knowledge. The other is that he has withheld the reference. He mentions others connected with the movement at the same period. None of them were scientists. None of them had run thousands of acres for years. If he knew about Howard, and withheld it, that would shake my faith in his even handedness.

Taverne doesn’t mention Leibig either – the German scientist who developed the science of artificial fertilizers. Leibig didn’t recant or anything like that, but he did warn of the dangers associated with the misuse of chemicals in the environment.

There is an irony in Taverne’s ommission, to my way of thinking, for the organic movement too seems shy of celebrating Howard, or even acknowledging him. There is, so far as I know, no major biography, only the potted history in the Dictionary of National Biography. Could that be because he was a scientist and a government man to boot? In my bleaker moments I have wondered if the organic movement is happier to leave scientific establishment figures out of its ancestory. The observations he made have still not been subjected to the scrutiny they demand, and remain, in some respects, years ahead of the movement they sparked. Curiously, one or two of the stories that came out during the foot and mouth year, were of organic farmers who pulled up their drawbridges and sat out the epidemic, at some risk I might add! Farms around them were culled, some were stricken, yet they came through unscathed. No-one took the possibility of that seriously enough though, to scientifically monitor it. That they survived remains as enigmatic, as far as explanations are concerned, as do the survivals that Howard witnessed all those years ago. At the time, it seemed to some that the crisis being responded to was not one of cattle, but one of politicians: the actions taken were to save the government, not the ‘national herd’. If that was the case, knowing if organically reared cattle were immune to the disease, would have been irrelevant.

Back to Taverne though. I could only question the chapter in question becaues of what I knew. Many of the other chapters lie quite outside my knowledge. How am I to know who has been left out of them, reasonably or unreasonably? Knowledge is power. Absolutely!

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