Making health infectious: from organic principles to whole health agriculture

Lawrence Woodward, OBE

Published in JHH16.3 – The Real Food Issue

The question,‘How do we feed ourselves when oil and other finite resources run out?’ led in 1975 to my farming organically. It was still pressing when I co-founded and began to direct the UK’s leading organic research and development centre in 1980. But over the 30 plus years in that role I became obsessed by health questions; what makes a ‘healthy’ farm? What qualities does it have? How are these passed on in its food and environment to people and animals? These are the unanswered questions of my professional life.

Health is the wholeness and integrity of living systems. It is not simply the absence of illness Click To Tweet

Creating and managing positive health

Generally in the conventional medical world, it seems health is seen in terms of absence of disease rather than as a positive state. There is an alternative view though, notably promulgated by the Peckham Experiment and its Pioneer Health Centre (Scott Williamson and Pearse, 1980) that there is such a thing as positive health and that this is a dynamic process with its own pattern of behaviour, and which can be as infectious in its way as disease. This example of holistic
thinking leads to the idea that the health of soil, plant, animal, man and planet is one and indivisible. This provides a conceptual basis for organic food and farming.

However, few farmers – organic or conventional – farm for health. Knowledge and understanding about how to manage a farm for health is limited. Nor do they know how it can be made to be infectious and how it can be transmitted. Yet we can experience some farms or crops or animals where ‘health smacks you in the face’. But why that is or why others don’t is largely unknown.

What is known is that organic agriculture is the only farming system consciously built on a concept of health (IFOAM, 2005). Whatever their merits, approaches such as agro-ecology, ‘agricology’, precision farming, low-input farming, regenerative farming, pasture-fed farming or any of the other buzzword farming approaches, are not conceptually or systemically build around health in the way organic farming is – and certainly none of them have been going for as long.

There are clear differences, between organic and other farming systems in a range of ‘beneficial parameters’ of food quality (FiBL and ORC, 2015). But apart from pesticide residues these differences are not as great as organic protagonists claim. Moreover they are statistically and visibly variable. It is clear that soil, farm type, season and major management differences in such things as rotations, cultivations, variety selection, manure and other input management, stocking rates etc are significant factors in this variability. What is unknown is how, why and if these factors affect the process of positive health and its transmission.

Organic farming is based on a concept of health

The genesis of organic agriculture is arguably to be found in three schools of thought, which originated in the first three decades of the twentieth century: the biodynamic or anthroposophical school of Rudolf Steiner; the organicbiological school of Muller and Rusch; and the organic school of Howard and Balfour. Also important is the work of Schuphan and Voisin who promulgated the idea of the ‘biological value’ of soil, plant and food in the early 1960s (Woodward, 2002)

Though there are some highly significant differences between them (for example the anthroposophical perception of ‘ethereal and astral forces’ is unique to
the biodynamic school), there is an essential core of agreement on three aspects:

  • the concept of the farm as a living organism, tending towards a closed system in respect to nutrient flows but responsive and adapted to its own environment
  • the concept of soil fertility through a ‘living soil’ which has the capacity to influence and transmit health through the food chain to plants, animals and humans, and that this can be enhanced over time
  • the notion that these linkages constitute a whole system within which there is a dynamic yet to be understood.

These core agreements underpin the principles of organic agriculture as health, ecology, care and fairness, as set out by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM, 2005). Although they are all linked together it is the first two which are most relevant to this discussion.

The organic principle of health declares that ‘the health of individuals and communities cannot be separated from the health of ecosystems: healthy soils produce healthy crops that foster the health of animals and people. Health is the wholeness and integrity of living systems. It is not simply the absence of illness, but the maintenance of physical, mental, social and ecological wellbeing. Immunity, resilience and regeneration are key characteristics of health.

The role of organic agriculture, whether in farming, processing, distribution, or consumption, is to sustain and enhance the health of ecosystems and organisms – from the smallest in the soil to human beings. In particular, organic agriculture is intended to produce high quality, nutritious food that contributes to preventive healthcare and wellbeing. In view of this, it should avoid the use of fertilisers, pesticides, animal drugs and food additives that may have adverse health effects.’

The organic principle of ecology ‘roots organic agriculture within living ecological systems’. It states that production is to be based on ecological processes, and recycling. Nourishment and wellbeing are achieved through the ecology of the particular environment. For example, in the case of crops this is the living soil; for animals it is the farm ecosystem; for fish and marine organisms, the aquatic environment.

Organic farming, pastoral and wild harvest systems should fit with the cycles and ecological balances in nature. These cycles are universal but their operation is
site-specific, so organic management must be adapted to local conditions, local ecology, local culture and scale. Inputs should be reduced by reuse, recycling and efficient management of materials and energy to maintain and improve environmental quality and conserve resources. ‘Organic agriculture should attain ecological balance through the design of farming systems, establishment of habitats and maintenance of genetic and agricultural diversity.’

In 1981 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) produced a definition of organic agriculture which is arguably more accessible to farmers (Woodward, 2002): ‘Organic farming is a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic systems rely on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients and to control insects, weeds and other pests. The concept of the soil as a living system…that develops…the activities of beneficial organisms… is central to this definition.’

Here we can see what organic farmers do not do, what positive things they do instead and the context in which they work; ie the living soil. Here is the key to
understanding what organic farm management looks like – or should look like – wherever it is. It concentrates primarily on adjustments within the farm and farming system, in particular rotations and appropriate manure management and cultivations, to achieve an acceptable level of output. External inputs are generally adjuncts or supplements to this management of internal features. Wherever it is found in the world, the common basis of organic agriculture is practical, clear and coherent enough for all but the dullest or most obstructive to understand.

The health of soil, plant, animal, man (and the planet) is one and indivisible

Health can be as infectious as disease, growing and spreading under the right conditions.

Establishing that organic farming is built on a concept of health with management practices based on ecological systems is important but it does not go far enough in explaining the perceived holistic nature of health, farming and food. For this, a consideration of the ideas of Lady Eve Balfour is needed (Woodward,
2006). In her seminal book The Living Soil, first published in October 1943, Eve Balfour argued that the health of the soil is the same as the health of the
plants that grow in it, of the animals that eat those plants, and the health of the humans that eat both.

Eve Balfour (1898–1990) co-founded The Soil Association in 1946 following publication of what became the founding text of organic agriculture, The Living Soil. At an earlier stage of her work, she thought of soil, plant, animals and man as separate entities that were somehow linked together. Her concern – and that of a number of leading mainstream scientific thinkers – was to find ‘the missing link’; the crucial component that made this vital link.

However, influenced by the doctors Scott Williamson and Innes Pearce of the Pioneer Health Centre and the Peckham Experiment, she came to the conclusion that they are not separate and linked but are one and indivisible.

Core concepts of ‘the living soil’

Eve Balfour’s thinking revolved around four notions, which she discussed in varying depths in her book. These were:

  • A biologically active, living soil is an essential prerequisite for soil fertility and the role of soil micro-organisms (especially fungi) is particularly important – as had been highlighted in MC Rayner’s earlier research on mycorrhizal.
  • This natural soil fertility is maintained and enhanced by the return and addition of organic material in the form of compost – Sir Albert Howard was the leading proponent of this ‘compost-farming’.
  • The third concept came from the nutritional studies of Sir Robert McCarrison, who found that the diets of the healthiest peoples he studied were ‘for the most part, fresh from its source, little altered by preparation and complete; and in the case of those based on agriculture, the natural cycle – (wastes to soil to plants to animals/man) is complete’.
  • Fourth, that all living things are whole entities with their own integrity but they function in ‘mutuality of action’ with all the other entities in their environment, so that while they are independent, only a functional relationship between them can sustain the health of the whole. This holistic perspective was primarily provided by George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse.

Lady Eve was more of a ‘doer’ than a ‘thinker’ and she quickly began to focus on what could be done practically

  • The primary factor in health (or lack of it) is nutrition.
  • Fresh unprocessed natural whole foods (such as wholewheat bread, and raw vegetables and salads) have a greater nutritive value than the same foods when stale, or from which vital parts have been removed by processing, or which have been destroyed by faulty preparation.
  • Fresh foods are more health-promoting than preserved foods (dried, canned, or bottled).
  • The nutritive value of food is vitally affected by the way in which it is grown.
  • An essential link in the nutrition cycle is provided by the activities of soil fungi, and for this and other reasons the biological aspects of soil fertility are more important than the improve health. She came up with five propositions:

The diets of the healthiest peoples he studied were for the most part, fresh from its source, little altered by preparation and complete

She felt that the first two of these propositions ‘have been pretty conclusively proved’, but that although the evidence to support the other three was strong, they had not been proven and ‘it has become a matter of the utmost national urgency to submit them, without delay, to a final and conclusive test’. It was this process that most intrigued sympathisers from the scientific establishment such as Viscount Bledisloe, a Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Chairman of the Lawes Agricultural Trust, which ran Rothamsted, the country’s leading agricultural research station.

Bledisloe readily accepted McCarrison’s argument that ‘immunity from degenerative human disease followed the ingestion of a fresh, well-balanced diet of unprocessed natural foods’. He also accepted Howard’s work on compost and how it engendered resistance to disease in otherwise susceptible crops. Yet, does this mean that there is a ‘consequential relation between humus and human health’? Bledisloe believed that ‘viewed from a strictly scientific standpoint, there is, it would appear, a small but important “missing link” in the chain of contact’ and he welcomed the idea of a ‘perhaps epoch-making experiment’ which would investigate the possibility of such a link (Woodward, 2006).

Transmitting health and making health infectious

The process by which health can be transmitted is the weakest element, although arguably the most important, of the whole Living Soil argument. It was not adequately defined nor even described in any of the early editions of the book. Its existence is alluded to through an association of the words ‘vitality’, ‘living’ and ‘quality’. At various points Lady Eve uses the terms ‘soil fertility’ and ‘soil vitality’ interchangeably. She then makes a theoretical link with the quality of food and health by what is, in essence, a linguistic or textual association.

Land … is not merely soil: it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals

In the 1976 edition published in the United States as The Living Soil and the Haughley Experiment, she makes a rather more precise effort to describe the process and picks up on the Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse idea that: ‘health is not a state but a dynamic process… .The early pioneers believed that its course is identical with the flow of the nutrition cycle, and that to promote it one must, therefore, keep open all the living channels of this flow, though no one yet knows what they all are, or even the true nature of the flow itself. That land is a great storehouse for it, however, seems clear. What then is land? Let me give the late Aldo Leopold’s definition: “Land…is not merely soil: it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals. Food chains are the
living channels which conduct energy upward: death and decay return it to the soil”. Soil fertility he defined as “‘the capacity of soil to receive, store and transmit energy”’. Lady Eve then continued: ‘The concept that the nutrition cycle is not merely a transfer of nutrient materials from one form of life to another, but also a circuit of energy, though even now not universally accepted, is no longer considered revolutionary, and under the name of ecology has become an acceptable subject for research’.

There is a touch of revisionism here about the thinking of the early pioneers and many would think that she is stretching the definition of ecology and it is a moot point as to whether this gets any nearer to describing what the ‘consequential relationship’ between soil and health might be. Depending on taste, one might see Leopold’s imagery as poetic and powerful, or as fanciful and obscure, but certainly it adds nothing from a scientific perspective and only serves to reinforce the lack of evidence.

However Lady Eve was determined to find that evidence and to understand the ‘functional relationships’ of organic entities – ‘man, animal, plant along with…the living inhabitants of the soil’, because she had concluded that between these entities there is no ‘missing link’, there is a ‘mutuality of action’.

Drawing on the work of Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse at the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham she hypothesised that ‘all disease might be a symptom of
unbalance between a living organism and its total environment, and that the key to health would not be found through the fragmentary approach of seeking the
cause of specific diseases, but in studying living function between organisms and their environment as a dynamic whole’.”

She therefore resolved to establish the Haughley Experiment to be ‘a type of comparative research different from any existing agricultural research’. And the inclusion of a more or less closed system – fundamentally at odds with Howard’s Law of Return – ensured that it was (Woodward, 2006)

The Haughley experiment

Work on the Haughley experiment got under way in 1947 and from the beginning was beset by management difficulties, methodological problems and lack of funding. It was a stop and start, debilitating experience but in establishing three comparative working ‘farmlet’ systems on one sizeable area of land with the same soil type, it was innovative and groundbreaking.

Three systems were established: a linear input/output system using only synthetic agri-chemicals (called the stockless section) ; a mixed cropping and livestock system recycling nutrients from within the system supplemented by bought in feed and fertilisation (called the mixed section); and a closed system with livestock and cropping with no outside inputs (misleadingly called the organic section).

For the most part data collected from the experiment was not analysed (and of course analytical methods of the time would be considered inadequate today) and in most cases (but not all) the published results were not peer reviewed. However there are some notable findings:

  •  plant growth patterns between the sections were significantly different
  • nitrogen levels in cereals and aphid numbers were significantly higher on the stockless section
  • humus levels in the organic (closed) system over time were significantly higher than the mixed system despite no fertiliser or external organic manure input and both were significantly higher than those in the stockless section
  • milk yields were comparable between the closed and mixed sections despite significantly lower feed intake
  • there was significantly greater longevity and fertility of cows in closed section.

The differences between the stockless and the mixed and closed sections are not surprising. However, the differences between the mixed and closed sections
are and are at odds with the conventional scientific knowledge of the time and, for the most part, of today also.

The major limitations of the Haughley experiment in terms of resources, management and methodology mean that we can draw no conclusions as to whether these differences tell us anything about Innes Pearse’s hypothesis that there is a ‘mutuality of actions’ of whole organisms or the transmission mechanism of health whereby ‘each taking what it needs and rejecting what it has had no use for, thereby sustaining the needs of others (within their mutual inhabitation of the ecosphere). As a shift occurs
through the action of one, so all shift within the functional organisation of the whole’. But more than this: ‘What each utilises in building up its own substance and carrying out its proper function, it stamps with its own specificity – its own “individuality”, or uniqueness. In the traffic of exchange there are then to be sought different types of contribution within the whole. There is that which is of specific pattern; and that, too, which is “anonymous” and in use common to all. Heat for example, generated in any
transaction passes “unlabelled” in its going, while there is that which having passed through the living organism, when ejected into the traffic stream, is imprinted with its specific identity, and leaving there its imprint on the scene for us to find – if we care to look!’ (Woodward, 2006).

Research evidence since Haughley

Since the The Haughley experiment ended a reasonable amount of research has been completed by a wide range of institutions from different countries revealing a clear trend that organic produce (in appropriate crops) contains more desirable components (vitamins, dry matter, protein, phytochemicals (including antioxidants and phenols) and fewer undesirable substances (pesticide residues, nitrates, sodium and some heavy metals) than conventional. produce. In livestock trials, animals fed on organically grown feed generally show greater fertility and longevity, higher healthy fatty acids and a better omega 3 to omega 6 ratio than those on conventionally produced feed (FiBL and ORC, 2015).

Most of this work has been carried out using mainstream methods and statistical analysis. However, some so-called ‘novel or complementary methods’ of analysis have been used in some of the trials. Picture-developing methods, bio-crystallisation, fluoresence-stimulation spectroscopy and forced-storage tests have been used to measure factors that are not revealed by chemical analysis. As most of these methods have now been validated under the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) we can have confidence in their findings.

The factors revealed have been called vitality and structural energy. Clear differences have been shown between organic and conventional systems; between
fertilisation regimes; between plant and seed varieties; and between growing conditions. It is postulated that these differences might be important for health. Further work is needed on these approaches but they might provide the evidence of a positive health dynamic and help identify how we can farm to optimise health.

Towards whole health agriculture

We cannot be definitive on how to farm for health nor how to make health infectious. We do not know what the important transmission factors are or how the ‘mutuality of actions’ work – whether through micro-organisms, bacteria, energy, vitality, self-organisation or something else.

However we do know some things that are likely to be important and which farmers should pay attention to. These revolve around managing the soil and above- and below-ground livestock through biological system management and not through inputs whether these are synthetic or organic.

Whole health agriculture as an organisation is undertaking case studies of farmers to understand what works and what doesn’t, how and why. We welcome farmers and growers who wish to join us in the vital exploration.


  • Fibl (Research Institute for Organic Agriculture Switzerland) and ORC (Organic Research Centre) (2015) Sustainability and quality of organic food. [Online]. Available at: download/link/id/335 (accessed 25 August 2019).
  • IFOAM (2005) Principles of organic agriculture. [Online]. Available at: (accessed 25 August 2019).
  • Williamson G Scott, Pearse IH (1980); Science, synthesis and sanity. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
  • Woodward (2006) Introduction to The Living Soil in: Balfour E, The Living Soil. Soil Association Organic Classics. Bristol: Soil Association.
  • Woodward (2002) Science and research in organic farming. Available at: (accessed 22 August 2019).