Tara Gibson Pinheiro explores the intriguing story and critical importance of Healthy Crops: A New Agricultural Revolution– a lost classic of agroecological science now republished online for the first time by Gaia.
Originally published in The Ecologist.
It is more than likely you have never heard of trailblazing French agronomist Francis Chaboussou. It is even more likely that you’ve never read his 1985 book, Healthy Crops: The New Agricultural Revolution.
But if you care about the state of our global food system, and the right of all people to adequate, healthy food, you really should have.
The book’s revolutionary thesis, though technical, in simply put by the late Brazilian organic pioneer Jose ‘Lutz’ Lutzenberger in his foreword:
“A pest starves on a healthy plant… the more poisons we apply, the more diseases and pests we get”
A forgotten classic
In the 35 years since Healthy Crops was published, global soil health has crumbled, the grip of agrochemical corporations has tightened and we are frequently assailed with headlines about how many harvests we have left until an agricultural doomsday.
In other words, the industrial, chemical-intensive agricultural model is in crisis.
In these circumstances, it is remarkable that Francis Chaboussou’s work has not received greater attention, and that the power of its transformative scientific message never found its way to the mainstream.
Or is it?
This week Healthy Crops was republished as a free online version for the first time by the Gaia Foundation.
To uncover the story behind this forgotten classic, I spoke to the people who saw the brilliance of Chaboussou’s theory back in the 1980’s and have kept his fire burning ever since.
“It’s so much easier produce food when we have very efficient tools in our hands to control pests and diseases through the health of the plant”, says Maria Jose Guazelli, a Brazilian agronomist at the Centro Ecologico, who was one of the first to appreciate the implications of Chaboussou’s work.
Healthy Crops outlines a theory Chaboussou names trophobiosis, which describes how and why, on a biochemical level, healthy crops which are getting what they need from the surrounding ecosystem – in terms of minerals, nutrients, fungi- are more resistant to pests and disease.
Far from protecting these crops, Chaboussou argues that chemical pesticides undermine plant health and resilience, making pest attacks more likely and, by extension, undermining the health and resilience of all who consume them.
In short, trophobiosis explains why organic, agroecological, biodynamic and other holistic agricultural approaches are so successful.
This may sound like an innocent, scientifically cogent argument. It has also been observed to work in practice in organic and agroecological farming systems in Brazil and worldwide. But it is also highly controversial. Why?
Perhaps because, as Chaboussou writes, trophobiosis “explain(s) the reasons for the failure of chemical pesticides, whether fungicides, insecticides, or (above all) herbicides.”
Chaboussou argues that a crop plant’s health and resilience, not the presence of pests, is the main factor in a healthy agricultural system. So-called pests can be present, but their impact will be minimal if plant health is good.
“This touches the very heart of the agrochemical industry, so it provokes a very powerful interest, a very violent interest”” says agronomist Laercio Mierelles, a colleague of Maria’s at the Centro Ecologico.
The received ‘wisdom’ of the agrochemical approach to agriculture is founded on the assumption that plant health and yield are assured not by strengthening the plant, but by the elimination of pests, weeds and fungi.
This war-like, adversarial approach is the foundation of the profits generated by the powerful agro-chemical industry, which emerged in large part from the chemicals companies and complexes developed during World War II.
Companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Dupont make the majority of their money from chemical sales. Plant health matters only insofar as it relies on chemical interventions, and therefore these companies’ products, to be maintained.
Agro-industry’s approach to growing is fundamentally challenged by Chaboussou’s more holistic, integrated analysis, which reveals agrochemicals to be the problem not the solution.
No silver bullets
“The idea that plants practice their own integrated pest management is not part of modern thinking; yet this provides a way forward which is nothing less than an agronomic revolution”, says biochemist Ulrich Loening, another long-time proponent of Chaboussou’s work.
Beyond the obvious opposition of agro-industry giants, Ulrich believes there are other reasons why Chaboussou’s ideas have gained little attention thus far.
“I suspect there is a public antagonism because people like quick sharp technical fixes”, says Ulrich.
“‘One pill for every ill’ is the catchphrase. If you can have a highly specific weed killer, or a highly active insecticide you will use it and people like that. Whereas if you come with a solution that is an all-embracing challenge to your way of life… a revolution in agriculture is a revolution of attitude as much as of technique.”
A New Agricultural Revolution
The agro-chemical industry definitely does not want a new agricultural revolution. And perhaps society at large, at least in western World, has been encouraged to agree.
After all, revolutions are equated with uncertainty, and uncertainty can be scary for those enjoying relative comfort.
But at this moment in history, with chemically intensive agriculture wreaking havoc on life-giving soils, polluting land, water and our shared atmosphere, plunging farmers into crippling debt, we cannot afford to take half measures or hope for silver bullet solutions to arrive unbidden where they have failed before.
“The use of agrochemicals has increased, and it’s beyond an agricultural problem. It’s become a worldwide humanitarian problem”, says Laercio .
In this context, re-valorising Chaboussou’s scientific rigour in challenging the agrochemical approach to global agriculture is more critical than ever.
Healthy Crops in action
While Healthy Crops and its powerful scientific message might have been denied the limelight thus far, there are countless cases of it being actively worked with and successfully demonstrated.
The growing influence and prevalence of permaculture, agroecology and biodynamic farming approaches all offer examples of Chaboussou’s ideas in practice. With their emphasis on holistic agriculture, the health of soil and crop diversity, these approaches grasp the importance of trophobiosis, whether they name it or not.
At the Centro Ecologico in Brazil, Maria and Laerecio are advancing Chaboussou’s ideas in practice and in full knowledge of Healthy Crops’ true importance.
Through visits, meetings, courses and trainings, Maria, Laercio and their colleagues are demonstrating how an understanding of trophobiosis can be harnessed to support small farmers and the transition to sustainable agriculture.
“Trophobiosis emphasises that we human beings have the ability, or the skill, to make plants healthy or make plants sick”, says Maria.
“If we choose to make plants heathy it becomes relatively easy for the farmer to produce. The growing process loses all the difficulty and the complicated mystery of producing with chemicals, which is something out of the reach of farmers. Trophobiosis empowers people at the local level, where farmers can make natural, affordable inputs themselves.”
With Healthy Crops re-published and widely available in English online for the first time, it is hoped many more can and will follow in the Centro Ecologico’s footprints.
Healthy Crops: The New Agricultural Revolution, republished by The Gaia Foundation, is available free online here.