Composting’s Colonial Roots and Microbial Offshoots

Laborers walk on a steaming pile of compost

Compost has been having a moment recently. From Donna Haraway’s Children of Compost and Anna Tsing’s mushroom to Richard Powers’s The Overstory and “The Understory” chapter in Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, and from ethics and politics to poetics, compost is currently a source of theoretical and literary fascination. 

But the practice of composting has a long history. While today’s composting methods are a product of imperial science and plantation agriculture in early twentieth-century India under the British Raj, these same methods also challenge one important current form of the plantation—grain monocultures. Unlike polycultures of diverse crops and livestock, monocultures are large fields of a single crop that radically simplify environments, often to their detriment.

What Is Composting?

Before we turn to the history of composting, though, let’s be sure we’re clear on what it is. Compost is not synonymous with decay in general or with fermentation or sewage sludge. While once-living matter just breaks down into soil of its own accord on the forest floor—thanks in no small part to the work of innumerable bacteria and fungi—composting is a human practice. 

Composting methods encourage and speed up decay by harnessing the power of such microorganisms, which don’t need to be brought to the party because they’re already there. By fostering the conditions in which these infinitesimal critters thrive, farmers and gardeners get the compost pile cooking, so that the microorganisms themselves produce enough heat to kill pathogens and weed seeds—without getting so hot that they eliminate too many varieties of their own kind. 

A chart showing the soil food web

A diagram illustrating how microorganisms and small animals participate in the soil food web. Photo by the USDA, 2011.

Crucially, people around the world were collaborating with these tiny creatures to grow crops for millennia before scientists first peered at them through microscopes. Enriching soil with materials such as animal manure and bedding straw, plant stalks, food scraps, and so-called night soil (or “humanure”) is a worldwide practice that has taken many forms. Indigenous people in the Amazon created ancient, fertile “dark earths” through land management. Writings about how manuring and related practices, like planting cover crops, terracing, and crop rotation, can sustain soil fertility go back to at least ancient Rome

In The Global History of Organic Farming (2018), which draws on newly available archives and is the first history of organic farming as a worldwide movement, Gregory Barton explains how Sir Albert Howard developed today’s dominant method of composting as an imperial economic botanist in British India. Livestock manure was relatively scarce in India because cow dung was needed as fuel. So Howard—drawing on a 1921 scientific finding on how to extend the fertilization power of a small amount of manure by mixing it with a lot of dead plant matter—figured out a way to do so at scale. 

Heaps of such waste were piled up, turned, watered, and aerated—by Indian laborers, of course—according to a specific protocol that Howard developed and dubbed the “Indore method” after his research station on a tea estate. Later, beginning in the late 1930s, Albert and his wife and collaborator, Louise Howard, made this method of composting into the cornerstone of the nascent organic farming movement in which they both became key leaders. 

Composting’s Colonial History

Though Barton doesn’t exactly put it this way, Howard’s Indore method adapted Britain’s polycultural practice of “mixed farming”—which relied on a certain ratio of livestock to crops in order to ensure that there was enough manure to restore fertility to the fields—to the monocultural context of the colonial plantation, where manure was scarce, but land and cheap labor were plentiful. 

The Indore method sets fungi and bacteria to work on a pile of mostly vegetable waste until it becomes a compost as effective as manure itself. Howard thus built on emerging scientific understandings of microscopic soil biota, which he calls “minute vegetable or animal agents” in The Soil and Health (1947). 

A black and white photograph of a wooden cellar in an orchard

A photograph of “an observation chamber for root studies” in Howard’s 1947 book The Soil and Health.

Howard sounds almost like a new materialist, insisting on the agency of bacteria and fungi long before the recent explosion of interest in the microbiome inside our own bodies, not to mention in plants, moss, and lichen. He wasn’t the first, though: Charles Darwin was an early leader in both developing soil science and giving small critters credit for monumental earth-restoring labor with his 1881 book on how earthworms produce humus

Moreover, Howard’s colleagues at the Imperial Agricultural Research Institute in Pusa, India, were working on the mycorrhizal association, first discovered in the nineteenth century, by which certain fungi connect with the roots of plants. Since the late 1990s, scientists have found that these mycorrhizal networks of fungi enable symbiotic energy transfer among trees of different species in forests—generating an excitement in line with other current enthusiasms about the liveliness and agency of what were once thought mere objects. But in the 1940s, Howard was already explaining the then-current understanding of the mycorrhizal association to a popular audience; he included photographs of fungal threads entering the root tips of apple trees in The Soil and Health. 

Though Howard may have been ahead of his time in considering microorganisms “minute agents,” his representations of the agency of the Indian cultivators who were the putative beneficiaries of his composting methods, not to mention the Indian laborers who made his work possible, are more problematic. In his scientific work while in India, Howard did not give Indian cultivators much credit for agricultural skill or knowledge, writing, for example, of the time they wasted, their “folly,” and their “reckless borrowing for unproductive purposes.” Indeed, he argued that the “indifference and illiteracy of the cultivator” was the main obstacle to agricultural progress. But in his later books for a popular audience, Howard wrote that, in India, he had taken “peasants” as his “professors” of agriculture. 

This striking disjunction is, of course, characteristically Orientalist: imperialists have long represented “Eastern” peoples as at once wise and immature—as possessing antidotes to “Western” shortcomings, but also in need of colonial tutelage to become modern. Barton traces what he calls the organic farming movement’s myth of peasant wisdom to such Orientalist representations. 

A black and white photograph of a field with laborers and vehicles visible

Large-scale composting requires intensive labor. A photograph in Howard’s 1947 book The Soil and Health depicts “compost-making at Chipoli, Southern Rhodesia,” the British colony that would later become Zimbabwe.

Howard had some initial success convincing tea producers in India and plantation operators in some British and German colonies in Africa to adopt his composting methods, but when fertilizer and pesticide production really took off after World War II, he was unable to persuade either policymakers or large-scale farmers to adopt the Indore method instead of “artificials.” Barton shows that Howard became more of an anti-chemical-fertilizer purist in the 1930s, as he became active in the early organic farming movement in the UK. 

So Howard developed his composting methods to address the problems of large colonial plantations. But these same methods—building the pile with a certain ratio of “green” to “brown” material, turning it, and aerating it—came to define the small-scale agricultural approach of organic gardeners and market farmers. 

Organic Legacies and Climate Promises

In that small-scale form, composting continues to mount an underdog challenge to a major current version of the plantation—namely, grain monocultures that are made possible by fertilizers and pesticides and have been planted “fencerow to fencerow” in the United States and increasingly around the world since the 1970s. Now mostly powered by giant machines and fossil fuels rather than by oxen and enslaved workers, monocultures are still very much central to agriculture. 

While Barton suggests that the spread of certified organic farming worldwide signifies the triumph of Howard’s Indore method of composting, that conclusion overlooks the fact that most organic certification schemes do not mandate composting. Indeed, the USDA’s organic standards prohibit certain inputs rather than prescribing positive agroecological approaches, as Brian Obach and many others have pointed out.

Early advocates of organic farming were fascinated by the mutualism of mycorrhizal fungi and the soil’s minute agents, but their ecological insights earned them only ridicule and opprobrium from scientists and the agribusiness establishment from the 1940s through the 1980s. Now organic farming is a big industry, but not one that always lives up to its agroecological ideals. 

A steaming pile of compost on a sunny fall day

Compost piles often steam because soil microorganisms produce heat as they break down organic matter. Photo by Christine Matthews, 2016.

Despite the fact the early organic farming movement was limited to small-scale growers and was quite marginalized, Albert and Louise Howard kept their sights on major interventions in the food production system. They advocated municipal composting as a way to return the fertility of “town wastes” to agricultural land. But their efforts to persuade city leaders to adopt such practices mostly failed.

Composting—despite its origins in colonial plantations—is now more necessary than ever. In the context of the climate crisis, soil is an essential carbon sink. Now not only scholars but even mainstream American politicians are talking about the role agriculture could play in mitigating climate change.  

The plantation is a cipher for complete control—over both other humans and the more-than-human world. But the practice of composting reminds us that even when we think we’re in control, we’re in fact depending on both tiny lively agents we cannot see and people whose knowledge has for too long been co-opted, demeaned, or disregarded. 

Featured Image: Firefighters attempt to suppress the flames of a compost pile that has combusted from its own heat. Image by Ramiro Barreiro, 2009.

Michelle Niemann is an academic editor and writing coach who earned her Ph.D. in English from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2014. As a postdoc at UCLA, she co-edited The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (2017). Her scholarly articles have appeared in Modernism/modernity, Victorian Poetry, and the Journal of Modern Literature. Most recently, she co-edited the digital textbook Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions (2019). Her previous contributions to Edge Effects include an essay on “Organic Farming’s Political History” (January 2020). WebsiteTwitter. Contact.