Today, we realize that plant nutrition is a far more complex process than merely supplying the so-called "essential" elements of nitrogen, potash and phosphorus. We know now that plants fed with highly purified forms of plant food are not poisoned by some toxic substance. True, the plants look sick and are subject to disease and insect attacks because they lack vigor. If, however, those elements which are eliminated in purification processes are restored, growth will quite possibly be superior to that produced with even the richest organic manures.
Here it is important to make one point: the existence of a true toxic commercial fertilizer element that will poison plants and can be passed on to animals and man has never been demonstrated. Of
course, there are chemicals which, if supplied to the soil in excess, will cause injury to plants, yet these same chemicals may be needed in small amounts for normal growth, whether derived from mineral (chemical) or organic sources.
Also there are powerful chemicals such as selenium which are absorbed by plants and can poison man, but these are carefully extracted from chemical fertilizers in manufacturing. Such poisonous elements are much more likely to occur in natural plant foods than in chemicals.
RISE OF ORGANOCULTISM
Time passed and chemical fertilizers became the standard. Then, about thirty years ago, the philosophy of a feeding program based on pure chemicals received the challenge that started the controversy we have today. It came from Sir Albert Howard, of England, who was born a Shropshire farm boy, but moved to the West Indies as a young man. Later, in India and Africa, where he moved to preach his ideas of plant nutrition, he worked to perfect a theory that humus and compost alone were enough for healthy plant growth, and that chemicals interfered with natural processes.
Unlike many of his followers, both of the past and today, Sir Albert was a man of solid scientific background. An honor graduate of Cambridge University in England, he was a competent mycologist, trained in scientific methods and observation. Many conclusions he drew from his experiences in India were sound, but not necessarily all-inclusive. His bias in favor of organic matter was a natural result of the climates in which he worked. In the tropics, loss of humus and other organic matter from soil goes on at all times, night and day, winter and summer alike. Never during the entire year's cycle do soil temperatures drop low enough to keep avid bacteria and fungi from attacking every scrap of organic matter that falls to earth.