The following is an excerpt from the Newsy Notes column by Agricola. The article, titled “Controversy over Fertilizers” was published in The Charlottetown Guardian newspaper on January 19th, 1946.
“Agriculture in Britain, given new life under the pressure of war, is engrossing the attention of the public as never before. One evidence of this is the interest taken in the wide-spread controversy between those farmers who favor the use of “artificial” fertilizers, and those who pin their faith on the old standby “muck”, which being translated is manure or dung.
“On the one hand, then, are those connected with “big business”- we have them in Canada too- who maintain that natural manures are not economic, that all farms should be run as factories, and that fences and horses should be scrapped in favor of prairies and tractors. On the other hand there are those who believe with Lord Lymington that “mineral and dung in solution, fused by human sweat, remain the food of civilized man.” They are also convinced that the use of artificial fertilizers is slowly poisoning the whole population, and have named sulphate of ammonia “Devil’s Dust.”
As far as we know, the 1940s were prior to the real industrialization of farming on Prince Edward Island and through much of Canada. Evidently, though, the debate on the development of large-scale operations was a heated one from the beginning.
Ammonium sulphate is still a fairly widely used fertilizer across Canada today, despite its clearly long history of controversy and early nickname of “Devil’s Dust.” According to The Government of Canada (2020), 11 000 metric tonnes of Ammonium sulphate were in inventory in the September count in Atlantic Canada alone; this is a number that in actuality has increased since 2015.
“The last statement is a serious charge, and can only be proved or disproved by a series of experiments which must necessarily be lengthy. Something of the sort has been done in New Zealand, and the results were published in 1939.The locale of the experiment was the Mount Albert Grammar School hostel, which housed sixty boys and the teaching staff. The dietary of the hostel was far above the customary standard for boarding schools, yet the boys suffered- as was the case in other N.Z. institutions- from colds, catarrh, septic tonsils, influenza, dental caries, and other ailments. (It must be stated here that all New Zealand’s food supplies are grown by means of chemical fertilizers).
“In 1936 Dr. G. B. Chapman of the Physical and Mental Welfare Society of N.Z. advised that the hostel’s fruit and vegetables be grown on properly prepared humus instead of chemically treated soil: and an acre of black volcanic soil was put under cultivation. No chemicals were used. The report of the matron of the hostel in 1939, said “The first thing to be noted, during the twelve months following the change-over to garden produce grown from our humus-treated soil, was the declining catarrhal condition among the boys. There was also a very marked decline in colds and influenza. Colds are now rare and any cases of influenza very mild. In the 1938 measles epidemic, which was universal in New Zealand, the new boys suffered the more acute form of attack: the boys who had been at the hostel for a year or more sustained milder attacks with a much more rapid convalescence.”
This influential study by Dr. Chapman was presented to the House Select Committee to Investigate the Use of Chemicals in Food Products in the United States Congress in 1951.
“There is much more to the same effect but we pass on to the Royal Commercial Travellers’ Schools near London, England. In 1939, Dr. E. Brodie Carpenter of that institution, took over the dental care of two or three hundred children whose condition he found “to be (dentally) deplorable.” In Sept. 1941, he again classified his charges and found the percentages of caries was about the same. In 1943 and 1944 there was some improvement, but the Dr. got a great surprise in Sept. 1945: his A class- the best- had increased to 97 per cent (from 50 p.c.); the B class once 32 p.c. was now only 3 per cent; and the C’s- worst of all, and once 18 p.c.- were entirely eliminated.
“Dr. Carpenter set out to find the reason for the improvement, and discovered that a 5 ½ acre field had been taken over in 1939, and a gardener appointed who believed in manure but not in fertilizer. He brought the field up gradually till the school was self-supporting so far as roots and green vegetables were concerned: and he claimed that the humus-grown stuff was responsible for the great improvement cited.
It is important to recognize that Dr. E. Brodie Carpenter was a dental scientist, but he was an active soil conservationist in the Soil Association’s group in Middlesex, England.
“At the College of St. Columba in Northern Ireland they even produce their own wheat and bread! Chemical fertilizers are rigidly excluded, and to this is attributed the very high standard of dental health enjoyed by the students.
“Now these conclusions are certainly plausible and seem to point the way to a change in farming, but it will, I venture to predict, take a long time to convince the farmer that he must farm without chemicals. Overwhelming proof that they are dangerous must be produced, and such proof will be hard to furnish: two or three examples are not enough.
“Chemical fertilizers certainly give the crops, and within certain limits the more fertilizer, the bigger the crop- which is all that the farmer looks for. But there are many chemicals in the soil in very small amounts, which are necessary to the good health of the crop and its consumer as well. The bigger the crop the more the soil is depleted of these necessary elements. We have already got to the stage where we must supply the turnips with boron and the potatoes with magnesia, while there may be other deficiencies not so apparent, or not yet discovered.
“A year or two ago P.E.I. was in the spot-light on account of the longevity of its people. Was the cause of the long life in the naturally raised food which the old-timers ate? Will the next generation live as long?”
The life expectancy in Canada has been steadily increasing over the course of the last century, according to the Government of Canada. So, while perhaps Agricola was a little too enthusiastic on suggesting artificial fertilizers as the cause of the early demise of Canadians, there is still value to noting that there were advocates for organic and sustainable farming in the 1940s, even though the concepts were not yet fully understood.
Read more of this Newsy Notes here.
To read more on the ninth Earl of Portsmouth and the political origins of his Soil Association, see here.
To read the full hearings on the Investigation of Chemicals in Food Products, see here.
To read more on Dr. Carpenter, and British agricultural history, see here.
To see the Statistics Canada data on fertilizer, see here.
To see the Statistics Canada data on life expectancy in Canada, see here.