Ecological Agriculture Projects Logo

EAP Publications | Virtual Library | Magazine Rack | Search

Join the Ecological  Solutions Roundtable

EAP Publication - 27

Stuart Hill call it Ecological agriculture

The Petro-Chemical Trust Calls It Preposterous.

Interview and photography by Alan R latent

As a child, he helped pick weeds and stones out of his grandfather's garden in England. As a student, he spent two years studying the ecology of a bat-inhabited cave in Trinidad. Now Dr. Stuart B. Hill is setting up an institute at McGill University's Macdonald College for research into alternatives to chemical agriculture. On a personal level, Dr. Hill describes himself as "a man concerned with the future of his two children, a man with a garden in which he tries to produce food for his family, a man trying to live ecologically in an old house that is not ecologically designed, a man who enjoys British--Monty Python" type~humor."

What part of your background brought you to your present thinking as an organic crusader?

I spent my undergraduate years at Swansea University where I was influenced by an ecologist called Amyan Macfayden who wrote an excellent book called '"Animal Ecology, Aims and Methods." The time I spent in Trinidad provided a unique opportunity to study the very complex kind of relationships that exist between the physical and the biological components of any environment. Because most. of the life in this cave was in the bat droppings, which is very like a fertile soil, I became interested in soil ecology. I then came to Macdonald College to work with Keith Kevan, who had written a book called "Soil Animals." Macdonald is an agricultural college and so I had an opportunity to look at agricultural soils. My early studies were on the effects of fertilizers, pesticides and other agricultural practices on soil animals. I also carried out comparable studies in forests. As a consequence, I became very concerned at the way we are managing our soils and felt there must be alternative approaches. I started to look around at different farming practices and found that those being employed by "organic" farmers seemed to be the nearest to a proper management of soil.

Who has influenced you the most in your organic pursuits?

That's a pretty difficult one to answer. People are always asking me which is the one book to buy on organic farming and I point to my shelf, which has several hundred books on it, and say 'that's what happened when I tried to buy one book." It is very difficult to say who has influenced me the most. One person who has been very important recently has been Spencer Cheshire of Smithville, Ontario, who was editor of Land Bulletin, the publication of the Land Fellowship in Canada. I was very fortunate that he came to work with me at Macdonald College at the start of our project on Ecological Agriculture. He was an enormous help particularly because he was not willing to compromise his views. Being a member of an academic institution, I guess I had got used to having to compromise my views.

When did you first become interested in Organic Methods?

It was when I started to find the effects of pesticides and fertilizers on soil animals. I should add that most soil animals are beneficial to the soil. The addition of fertilizers and pesticides to soil brings about a change in the number of animals in the soil. Usually they decrease, although sometimes numbers can increase. It is often difficult for people to see how an increase in the numbers of a beneficial species can be harmful. We are finding more and more often that more is not necessarily better. For soil to function properly we have got to have a balanced population of soil animals. An increase in the number of soil animals can lead to increased degradation of soil organic matter. It was when I saw that conventional agricultural practices brought about imbalances in soil populations that I started looking around to see who was managing soil properly. The organic farmers were the ones that came to light.

Who or what influenced you to come to Macdonald College?

I came to work with Keith Kevan on soil animals. I guess I always had done quite a lot of reading about great scholars o i the past and they always seemed to be people who had come and studied under great people. At that time the only person who had written a book in English on soil animals was Keith Kevan and so it seemed natural that I should come and work with him. I am very glad that I did.

What courses do you teach?

I am in the Entomology Department and am, or have been, responsible for the teaching of General Entomology, Soil Animal Ecology, Soil Ecology, Arachnology, Physical and Biological Aspects of Pollution, Principles of Ecology, our Seminar Series in Zoology and an evening course on organic gardening.

Are you a pessimist or an optimist?

I would definitely describe myself as an optimist -- but perhaps as a patient optimist.


I support the philosophy that if we can understand the problem, we can usually solve it. I think that I understand, at least to some extent, the problems relating to the survival of the peoples of the world in a healthy, happy state, so I feel hopeful that these problems can be solved. This is where patience comes in. One has to be prepared to work on bringing about change over a long time scale. Rapid change usually leads to stress, instability and unhappiness and can even be damaging, rather in the same way that rapid changes in populations of soil animals can damage the soil.

Can you be an optimist about the future of world food production?

Yes, I think so. Most of the projections at the moment are relatively meaningless just because they are on a world basis. I think we have to look at relationships between people and food production on a regional basis, not only because I think we should be trying to be self sufficient on a regional basis, but also because the particular eating habits and nutritional needs of people vary enormously from one region and from one country to another. As a result of the writings of people such as Francis Moore Lapin (Diet for a Small Planet), many people are discovering the incredible difference in need for agricultural land if we eat the bulk of our protein as meat compared to the need if we eat it as vegetable protein. It has been estimated, for example, that a state the size of Vermont could produce food to meet the nutritional needs of the whole of the United States; perhaps Ontario could feed the whole of Canada. These are not recommendations but they are comments on what is possible.

What, in your opinion, is the greatest obstacle in feeding the world today?

I think the greatest obstacle is relying too heavily on "doctor experts" as Chuck Walters (editor of Acres, U.S.A.: A Voice for Eco-Agriculture) has called the various specialists in agriculture. I think we face a grave problem in science in the form of specialization. We have emphasized depth at the expense of breadth. When we have a problem to be solved such as an infertile soil, solutions are proposed such as putting up ammonia production plants. It is infertile because of the way it has been managed; the way it interacts with natural cycles; the extent to which it exposed to the elements etc. So if we want to solve the problems of infertile soils, we have got to take a much broader view than we have been doing in the past. The same approach applies to the existence of pests. Somehow we have got to bring about a very fundamental change in the educational process to correct) this situation. At the same time, we have to recognize the enormous pressure on farmers, agricultural researchers and teachers from corporate business to market their products, which are designed to deal with symptoms, not causes. I think we are going to need a different sort of political structure to control this sort of pressure.

Do we have too little food and the land on which to produce it, or too many people?

This relates to what we were talking about before. It we are going to use the land to produce grain to feed to cattle in feedlots then we certainly have not got enough land; or, to put it another way, if all the people expect to eat steak every day, then we have got too many people. Let's look at the land problem first. I think that we have got enough land, but an enormous amount of it is marginal or submarginal and has to be farmed in a much more caring way than we are accustomed to doing. This is where organic, biological, or ecological farming has an enormous amount to offer.

With respect to people, my position is that we should definitely control population, particularly in the so-called developed part of the world because it is the "consuming" population that are the most burden on the environment and a threat to the survival of the species. However, I think that t he amount of money and energy that is being invested in controlling population in developing countries could have better been spent to get people in developed countries firstly to control their own population and, secondly, to reduce their consumption.

I think that population manipulation is something that has to be done very gradually. Rapid change can lead to enormous instability. I think that the world can support a much larger population than we have at present and that perhaps some people have been more alarmist than is necessary. On the other hand, population density affects the level of consumption we will be permitted to have if we want to survive; so, with respect to some commodities, the lower we keep our population density, the greater the level of individual consumption we can indulge in without destroying the environment. In this sense population control may be viewed as a kind of insurance.

One area that is equally important and that has not received much attention is population distribution. There are, as it were, a triangle of things that not only determine our survival but also affect one another; they are population density, population distribution and population activities, e.g. consumption, This, if we could change our distribution to a more dispersed pattern, would benefit us in the same way as controlling population and reducing consumption.

Don't you think we are compounding a food crisis when we give grain to a country like India? It only seems to increase the population.

I think that is an over-simplified view of the situation based on the unfounded concept that food and not sexual intercourse produces babies. My concern with giving grain to India is not that it increases population but that it prevents them from dealing with their own problems at the cause level. In addition, I think that much of the grain that is given does not end up in the mouths of the people who really need it.

The modern study of organic methods of farming and gardening started in India -- why haven't they benefited?

I think in some parts of India the organic methods of Sir Albert Howard (An Agricultural Testament, Soil and Health) are still practiced; so in this sense they have benefited and are still benefiting. In fact, I have recently taken on a graduate student who has just come back from India where he has been applying organic methods. I think the main reason that they are not more widespread is because of outside pressure, particularly in the form of North American foreign aid, to change their agricultural system to a North American type system based on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and heavy machinery.

Do you feel that enough people realize, as Paul Erlich has said, that we have reached the end of affluence, and that we will soon be forced to recycle our resources, including food wastes?

No. Not until everybody realizes that they must develop a perpetual relationship with the support environment will "enough people realize." It is imperative that we realize that this throw-away period we live in must come to an end. We must stop the production of products with built-in obsolescence. We must standardize bottles and tins and packaging so that they can be recycled. Often when people

talk about this there is a feeling that we are coming to an age of hardship and suffering. I don't think this need be the case. Recycling can be a lot of fun. But to make this fun, we will have to change our values and emphasize quality of life more. This will involve developing a sensitivity to how good it feels to breathe clean air or to not have to peel apples to avoid eating pesticides or to avoid certain meats to prevent taking in D.E.S.; to be able to sit on chairs made of wood as opposed to plastic; to be able to wear clothes made of cotton or wool rather than of synthetic materials. I think these are joys that we have to relearn.

Why are the universities -- especially the agricultural colleges--not leading the way toward the abandonment of artificial fertilizers?

I guess the oldest member of the faculty in most of these colleges would have been doing their early work at the time when artificial fertilizers were first used. I am sure they were incredibly impressed by the way in which the addition of nitrogen fertilizers could bring about increased crop yields. Until the recent concerns over energy and environment they had no reason to question this simplistic approach to solving problems of soil fertility. They taught their pupils what they saw, the industries flourished and we have been in this era of salting our fields ever since. It is only now with the realization that we will inevitably run out of the resources from which these fertilizers are made, that some people in agricultural colleges are realizing that we will have to move, eventually, to organic fertilizers. This is primarily why I am trying to do what I can to set up a centre or institute concerned with developing a "permanent" agriculture on the Macdonald Campus of McGill University.

Why would you use organic rather than synthetic fertilizers?

Because it is w hat the soil needs. An organic fertilizer enables the soil to support a plant without doing anything to it that might prevent it from continuing to be able to support that plant in the future; because plant roots need not only certain nutrients, but also air, warmth and moisture. In the presence of an active population of beneficial soil organisms we are able to meet these needs of the plant by supplying the soil with organic fertilizers. Inorganic fertilizers supply the plant with only certain nutrients, and they do this in such a way that the ability of the soil to meet some of their other needs declines. So in my mind, there is no question about which is preferable.

Organic usually means those compounds of carbon, but you are using it in another context. Could you please define what you mean when you use the word organic in terms of growing things.

Actually I tend not to use the word "organic" because within academic institutions the word organic seems to get many people's backs up; so we have tended to Use the word biological or ecological. What I mean when ~ talk about ecological agriculture or organic agriculture is an agriculture that tries to learn from nature, tries to respect her laws of nature; that is based on the cycling of nutrients, on biological limitations, on availability of resources and on the relationship between complexity and stability. Conventional agricultural systems ignore all these things so we have a linear flow of materials instead of a cyclical flow. Fertilizers are pumped in at one end and crops are taken out at the other. The biological and biochemical constraints are not respected. Synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, growth substances and so forth are added to the system resulting in it lacing damaged. There is no respect for the limitation of resources in modern agriculture. It is based on finite fossil fuel energy inputs. Also, it is based on the management of simple systems-- vast fields of wheat, corn or soya beans--whereas natural systems tend to be far more complex. I think we have to develop agricultural systems which are in essence exactly the opposite of those that we have actually created. At the moment we are right at the beginning of this process of conversion.

How entrenched is agribusiness in the university system?

I think that it is thoroughly entrenched in the university system. Agricultural schools are largely training students to work in agribusiness. Most schools provide a very poor training for the student who wants to farm ecologically.

Do you have any statistical information on grants by the chemical companies to the agricultural colleges?

No, I don't have any off the top of my head but the AgriBusiness Accountability Project in Washington have compiled a fair amount of statistics on this. Jim Hightower's books, "Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times", and "Eat Your Heart Out" are good places to start if you are interested in digging out these kind of statistics

You have been promoting ecological methods here at Macdonald. How do you assess your efforts to date?

Looking back there have been many moments of frustration and there still are many moments of frustration but on the whole I am very pleased with the progress we have made. Actually I didn't think; I would have the opportunity to come this far so soon. It was only because the major benefactor of our college, Mr. David `Stewart, was interested and suggested that somebody be given the opportunity to develop it. Eight now we have a resource centre which is fairly well supplied with books, periodicals and reprints on ecological agriculture. I ~ have been able to correspond with an enormous number of people and get a good feeling for the state of ecological farming, not only in North America, but in the world. We are on our way to establishing a research programme, a teaching programme and an extension programme in this area with coop oration from the whole of the faculty. I hope that this year we will start a field programme in which we will carry out some meaningful experiments and work with farmers who have had some experience in ecological farming.

How can the information and research that you are doing get to the people who can use it most -- farmers and gardeners? Now it seems there is only a communication between academics.

I am very conscious of this problem, and because of this err very anxious that when we carry out research where possible, we use farmers as researchers and do experiments on farm land in cooperation with the farmer, because I think farmers are the best publicizers of innovations in agriculture One thing that I hope we will do is produce a weekly or monthly bulletin or newspaper once we get going. I think there is a danger however, in putting out information and handing out advice too soon because our activities are being watched very closely by the conventional agriculturalists and if we give out information that doesn't work, T can assure you it will be widely publicized.

It is also important to realize the difference in the sort of advice that I would give. If somebody phones me up and says I've got such and sue h a pest on some plant in my garden,, I'm likely to ask a lot of questions and give recommendations particularly about managing the soil, the use of mulches, the method of watering. perhaps the time of planting, and probably the last thing I would mention is any control that might be used to actually kill the bug. 1 would he concentrating on a whole range of little things that one could do to prevent the outbreak of the pest. This contrasts with the sort of advice that would be Liven by a conventional agriculturalist. Once he knew roughly what sort of pest it is, he would probably simply say one or two pounds of such and such a pesticide per acre. So the ecological approach is a complex approach as opposed to a simplistic approach, a preventative approach as opposed to a curative approach.

How is your research funded?

We have received a grant -from Mr. David Stewart to examine the feasibility of establishing an institute or centre concerned with ecological agriculture and the relationships between soil, food and health. I am very grateful for the opportunity to do this work.

If you were given a blank cheque to aid your research, what would you do with it?

I think one of the major problems we fate in research and teaching today is that so much of it is redundant, that is it's repetitious, it's not tackling the vital problems, or it's out of date. I would like to see an ecological farm set up where the new concepts in ecological agriculture could be tested. I would like to have a mobile teaching unit that could go around to farms, to farming areas and perhaps to schools to put on one-day or short courses on various aspects of ecological agriculture. I would like to see us have a soil auditing lab that should give advice on soil problems in a more comprehensive way than the chemical analysis approach does at the moment. I would like to be able to set up a preventative ecological pest control programme that would serve farmers and supply them with various materials whether they are bacteria or predators or parasites of insects and advice on how to prevent pest problems.

For all the gardeners and farmers outside who are being hustled by the petro-chemical trust, how can they fight back-- what can they do?

I think they have got to learn to be their own experts anti have more faith in themselves. There is very, very little need for pesticides or inorganic fertilizers in a backyard garden. Most backyard gardens are complex enough to not suffer from the major pest problems that attain h agricultural land. If gardeners would learn to plan their gardens and lay them out in a little more complex way and to fertilize their soils with compost arid use a mule} and perhaps some additional things like seaweed sprays and soil innoculants they could completely contra! their major pest problems.

With respect to soil fertility, most homes with gardens have enough leaves, grass cuttings, kitchen wastes and other plant refuse to produce sufficient compost to fertilize their gardens. It is often forgotten that the human body eliminates most of its nitrogen and potassium in the form of urine, which is a perfect compost additive. If we would just learn to not flush this down the lavatory into the river, we could provide all the nitrogen and potassium the garden needs by returning it through the compost heap. So for the gardener I don't think there are too many problems.

For the farmer there undoubtedly is a problem because he is faced with an economic problem; also he often has to compete in markets in which there are government subsidies for pesticide and fertilizer use, a market structure that. supports the large business over the small business, that is also insensitive to food quality, and a system where most of the money is not made try the farmer but by middlemen. So I think his problems are very different from those of gardeners; these are problems that will largely be solved at the political level. There has been a tendency for some farmers to try to change their farms from the conventional type to the ecological type yet keeping the same crops as they have always grown; I feel that this is likely to Iliad to failure. What we really need to know in order to decide what crops to plant is to find out what are the optimum nutritional requirements of people; once we know this we will know what we have to grow, and once we know what we have to grow we will know how to plan our farms. It is ironical that despite all our advances in agriculture and nutrition we do not know these things at this time. In fact, conventional agriculture is committed simply to producing food whereas it should be committed to meeting the optimum nutritional requirements of people. It seems to me that this is the real priority because, until we know what food we really need, we will not be in a position to make rational agricultural management decisions.

Copyright 1976 Ecological Agriculture Projects

Info Request | Services | Become EAP Member | Site Map

Give us your comments about the EAP site

Ecological Agriculture Projects, McGill University (Macdonald Campus)
Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC,  H9X 3V9 Canada
Telephone:          (514)-398-7771
Fax:                     (514)-398-7621


To report problems or otherwise comment on the structure of this site, send mail to the Webmaster