Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 14 January 2024

Visionary who proved that Man and Nature can work together

‘FOOD as a Criterion of Good Government’ was a report that would not be written today. Its author, more than a hundred years ago, was Sir George Stapledon, an agricultural scientist and pioneer environmentalist whose name deserves a revival. Today, immersed in climactic doom, told that the human species is a scourge on Earth and destroying the planet, we face increasing limits on our lives in order to ‘save the planet’. Stapledon, who knew how to make food go round, shows us another possibility – that of continuing human progress in harmony with nature.

Born into an illustrious family in rural Devon in 1882, Stapledon helped on the farm as a child and learned much from the old hands. He went to Cambridge University, but found the lectures impractical and philosophically shallow. Armed with a diploma in agriculture, he undertook research at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, where he found that the orthodoxy was never quite right, as noted by Robert Waller in an introduction to Stapledon’s posthumously published Human Ecology (1964):

‘In the dry summer days of 1911, the leys sown by the farmers tended to die out while the wild grasses in the hedgerows, ditches and roadside verges remained green. So Stapledon dug up some of these roots and replanted them in a kitchen garden. He also observed that plants tended to remain green longer in proportion to the depth of the soil. Interpreting nature’s own experiments and learning from them how to experiment oneself, by guiding and refining upon what actually happens in the outdoor scene, became a firm Stapledonian principle.’

During the First World War, Stapledon lamented the lack of interest by the government in his methods to increase crop harvests. In 1919 he was appointed director of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station. Developing new strains of grasses, Stapledon revolutionised agricultural practice and was knighted in 1939. He had given Great Britain vital preparation for the coming war, reducing the need for importing food (instead, shipping could be used for armaments and other supplies).

For Stapledon, a balance was needed between the bucolic idyll and mechanisation. Science should be in tune with nature, not conquest. In contrast, overcoming the laws of biology has been a dominant theme of totalitarian regimes, particularly communists. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union lionised the charlatan Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Western genetics to advance a nurture-over-nature absolutism true to Marxist-Leninist thought. Thousands of biologists were dismissed from their institutes, giving way to the new dogma. Lysenko believed, for example, that birch trees could learn not to compete with each other but to grow equally. When he was placed in charge of maize production, his agronomic master plan was a total failure, causing mass starvation.

The communists were not alone in pushing bad science. Millions of sub-Saharan African villagers suffered the consequences of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which led to the banning of the pesticide DDT. Smug environmentalists patted themselves on the back while poor children died unnecessarily.

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