Organic’s Law Of Return

“One of the great foundational lessons of organic farming is the belief that everything is connected. Albert Howard wrote about the Law Of Return and Dave reflects on waste and a whole system approach to organic farming in conjunction with Eli Goldratt’s “no complex systems” argument in this week’s letter:


A black and white photo of Eli Goldratt with brown curly hair smiling at the camera wearing a white collared button up shirt

“In reality, there are no complex systems” – Eli Goldratt

Dear Friend,

Eli Goldratt once taught a lesson where he showed two pictures.

Picture A:

Six circles in two rows.

A white rectangle with two rows of light blue circles. Three circles per row.


Picture B:

Had six circles with a “mess” of squiggles, lines, arrows, and symbols

The same six circles as the above photo but lines going all over from some circles to others, arrows pointing from some circles to others, and other connections from circles to others that look like a bunch of smiley faces or xxx's.

Eli asked, “Which one of these is a simple system and which one is a complex system?”

He insisted that the answer would depend on your background.

If you were a normal civilian, the answer would be obvious. The six circles in Picture A represent a simple system. If you were a physicist, the answer would be obvious. The “mess” of squiggles and arrows is the simple system.

That is because, in the mess, everything in the picture is somehow connected to everything else. In the six circles, nothing is connected to anything else.

Then Goldratt added one final statement:

“In reality, there are no complex systems.”

“All the great agricultural systems which have survived have made it their business never to deplete the earth of its fertility without at the same time beginning the process of restoration.”
― Albert Howard, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture

No matter how complicated the world seems, it is never a “complex system”. It is always a “simple system”. Everything is always connected to everything else, even if we don’t understand why or how. That is the real world.

In our imagination, we often create unreal systems.

We start to actually believe that everything isn’t connected to everything else. Much of our science is based on isolating variables, breaking systems down into smaller parts. Only by “simplifying” can we make an experiment.

As Stuart Hill said, we think that science is putting a rat in a cage, giving it a shot, and seeing what happens. Stu called this “shallow science.” What we learn from this can be enormously valuable and powerful. But it is always a partial truth. Our actual lives are lived in environments that are complex and interconnected.

When we change reality, there are always unforeseen consequences. 

  • We discover drugs that can help us, but they always have “side effects.”
  • Our “science” is often used to create ways of producing cheaper food.
  • Not everyone can afford it, but we have historically cheap food.
  • And expensive health care.
  • The cheaper food often creates health problems that we then address with new (expensive) drugs.
  • Which often create problems that we treat with further drugs. Or with sophisticated surgeries.
  • We seldom seriously consider eating differently or exercising more. Or the many lifestyle changes that will make the drugs and surgeries unnecessary.  
A yellow text box with black text that reads: "“Our industries, our trade, and our way of life generally have been based first on the exploitation of the earth's surface and then on the oppression of one another--on banditry pure and simple. The inevitable result is now upon us. The unsuccessful bandits are trying to despoil their more successful competitors.  The world is divided into two hostile camps: at the root of this vast conflict lies the evil of spoliation which has destroyed the moral integrity of our generation. While this contest marches to its inevitable conclusion, it will not be amiss to draw attention to a forgotten factor which may perhaps help to restore peace and harmony to a tortured world. We must in our future planning pay great attention to food--the product of sun, soil, plant, and livestock--in other words, to farming and gardening.”  ― Albert Howard, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture"


Our conventional chemical agricultural system is constructed as if:

  • The nutritional quality of our food doesn’t matter.
  • Farming processes happen in isolation.
  • The way our food is grown isn’t connected to our weather, to our health, to our air and water.
  • It doesn’t matter to eaters how farm workers or farm animals are treated.
  • The profit motive will always lead us to the common good.

One of the great foundational lessons of organic farming is the belief that everything is connected.

Albert Howard wrote about Organic’s Law Of Return.

Howard strongly advocated the recycling of all organic waste materials, including human manure, back to farmland. Everything must continue as part of a system. Everything must be returned. There is no “away” in which to throw our trash.

It matters. In reality, there are no complex systems. There are only simple systems. And our limited understanding. But our ignorance will not protect us.

Will Brinton wears a khaki button up short sleeved shirt in a field of grain. He points at something out of frame while holding a clipboard.

Will Brinton once told me that almost all of the research done on soil and nutrition since Howard’s writings in the 1940s has supported Howard’s conclusions.

The recent book What Your Food Ate by David Montgomery and Anne Bikle has looked carefully at that ocean of research in the last 80 years and come to the same conclusion.

What Your Food Ate was released on June 21. Co-author, David Montgomery, will be our next guest at the Real Organic Book Club on June 30th. See you there!

Join the Real Organic community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, engineers and artists. To join Real Friends, please click here.