The British decided against rebuilding the institute in Pusa. Instead, it was recreated near the new capital of New Delhi, on what was dubbed the Pusa campus. This is now the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), part of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), whose many organisations study everything from, alphabetically, agroforestry ( Jhansi) to yaks (West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh).
Within this vast network, an IARI regional research station in Indore might not seem too significant.
According to ICAR’s website, this was set up in 1951 following an epidemic of wheat rust in central India and it now specialises in durum, the hard wheat used for semolina (sooji) and pasta. But another note links it to both the original Pusa institute and a person of considerable, if somewhat controversial, importance in agriculture.
According to ICAR, the Indore research station was set up where the Institute for Plant Industry (IPI) used to exist.
IPI was established in the 1920s by the Maharaja of Indore, ostensibly to study cotton. But it also seems to have been a way to offer a research position to Albert Howard, a British agricultural scientist who first come to India in 1905 to work as imperial economic botanist at Pusa.
Howard’s job was to develop Indian agriculture using modern crops and technology.
As with most British attitudes to India, the implicit view was our farmers needed to be educated to develop (and help British interests in the subcontinent). But Howard had a rather different attitude. He was a farmer’s son, proud of his practical knowledge of agriculture, and he also had an unusual willingness to consider other viewpoints.
He acknowledged his wife, Gabrielle, as an equal partner in his scientific work, and would also ensure his Indian assistants got their full credit.
This open-mindedness led Howard to notice that crops in the fields of farmers outside the institute often seemed healthier than his own, even though they didn’t use the latest techniques, like chemical fertilising.
He started studying their traditional methods- of animals raised alongside crops, with their wastes, and other plant wastes forming the only fertilisers. Howard was an expert in fungi and he theorised that traditional methods nurtured fungi and microbes in the soil, leading to better soil health than what was created by artificial means.
Howard’s theories would lay the principles for the organic farming movement, but they proved too radical for his colleagues at the time. His biography, written by his wife, hints at conflicts, which lead to him being sidelined. But Howard realised that the princely states offered more liberties than the directly Britishruled provinces. Indore gave him a chance to continue his research without leaving India.
Howard developed and popularised what he called the Indore process, a method of combining animal and plant wastes to ensure rapid decomposition into a form that could be used in farming — a scientific system for composting. This attracted attention both in India and abroad. In 1935, shortly after Howard had retired, The Times of India reported on how the Indore process had been taken up “in East Africa, the Central Provinces of India, the Punjab, the United Provinces and Sind, where important crop improvements had resulted.” Mahatma Gandhi also heard about it and felt it fitted his concept of village technology. It isn’t clear if he ever met Howard, but he did visit IPI and examined the process. This was recently acknowledged by ICAR, with its “Kisan Gandhi” float during this year’s Republic Day parade. ICAR’s website explains that was inspired by Gandhi’s “promotion of Swadeshi breeds, organic agriculture and goat milk for better health” and mentions his visiting IPI in 1935 to study the Indore process.
ICAR’s website notes proudly that this float was awarded first prize in a ceremony on January 28, with Defence Minister Nirmala Seetharaman doing the honours. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence then that the BJP government has shown a real interest in organic farming.
In his first budget in 2014, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allocated `150 crore towards development of a soil health card, a concept that seems to stem directly from Howard’s systematisation of what he learned in India. BJP governments in states like Uttarakhand and Himachal have gone even further in promoting organic farming.
But does ICAR really support organic farming, beyond using it for floats? Globally, the agricultural research establishment has been notably hostile or dismissive of organic farming. For example, a recent study from Sweden suggested that shifting to organic farming might have higher environmental costs because its lower productivity would require more land in cultivation. What is really instructive is how this fairly technical point was used as evidence that organic farming was “Not Worth the Hype”, as one commentator’s piece was titled.
What such views don’t acknowledge is the wider benefits of organic farming –from lower input costs for farmers, less harm caused from pesticides to the wider environment and fresher produce for consumers. One notable achievement of organic farmers is how they have managed to break the restrictions of wholesale markets to supply direct to consumers.
And while there are real scientific concerns, for example, in the way the organic movement is being conflated with opposition to GM crops, there is a real need for mainstream agriculture to engage with organic principles to offer viable alternatives.
With both the history of Howard’s learnings and current government support, India could offer a real chance for agricultural research to break through these divides between organic and mainstream agricultural research. Perhaps ICAR could take a lead with an institute dedicated to organic farming research-maybe even on that original Indore site now named after Albert Howard.