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Fukuoka, Natural Farming, and the Developing World

Buddhism and Agriculture - Part 3

In his later life, Masanobu Fukuoka became very concerned with using natural farming to solve real-world problems. This was reflected in the progression of ideas in his writings. In his first book, The One-Straw Revolution, Fukuoka (1978/2009) outlined the philosophy and practice of natural farming. In his final book, Sowing Seeds in the Desert (Fukuoka, 1996/2012), he provided a more concrete manifesto of how natural farming can provide solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. This includes a strong focus on some of the major issues affecting farming communities in developing countries.

In my first article in this series, I explored the philosophy of Masanobu Fukuoka and his system of natural farming, drawing mostly on The One-Straw Revolution. In the second article, I reported on my visit to Fukuoka-sensei’s farm in Iyo and how things have changed there since he passed away in 2008. In this post, I would like to make some general reflections on whether the philosophy and methodology of natural farming (as defined by Fukuoka-sensei) can offer benefits to poor farmers in developing countries. This post provides only some initial reflections – much more work needs to be done to document and evaluate Fukuoka’s impact in the developing world. I would, therefore, invite you to read this post and engage by leaving your thoughts in the comments section, below.

 

 

Healing the World

In Sowing Seeds in the Desert, Fukuoka (2012) treats the problems of developing societies as part of a generalised sickness afflicting all of the modern world. The symptoms of this sickness appear in the form of desertification, overpopulation, hunger and other malaises. Parts of the world – the deserts, the slums, the mountains of waste and the hollowed-out mines – are crying out for healing. According to Fukuoka, however, the road to recovery must be holistic. To illustrate this, he draws on the distinction between Western medicine – which focuses on the localised treatment of sickness – with Eastern medicine – which concerns itself with the holistic conditions of health. In so doing, he makes note that Eastern medicine’s concern with holistic health has become difficult, as we have all become so estranged from the conditions of true health (i.e., a healthy natural environment and lifestyle) that we have lost sight of what health means.

Whether the disease is in an individual body or at the level of societies or ecosystems, the path to healing lies in reconsidering the relationship between humanity and nature. As such, it is clearly not as simple as attempting to fix specific problems with a new technological intervention. The Green Revolution demonstrates clearly enough that producing more food has not had the effect of reducing hunger (see Rosset, 2000; Vanhaute, 2011). Healing occurs in relations of love, care, and joy, which bring the organism back into its condition of integration with the natural world.

When it comes to social problems like poverty and environmental destruction, the modern mentality tends to assume that the solution will lie in more ‘rational’ modern interventions: through a new efficiency measure, new technology, new development program and so on. We hope that the problem of poverty can be solved through more consumption, without recognising the extent to which consumption is part of the problem. Fukuoka steps back and observes how many of our problems relate to the simple fact that we have lent value to material possessions. If we allowed ourselves to place value on things other than ownership, many of our problems would drop away. Returning to nature by way of agriculture would allow us to live simple lives where the need for endlessly expanding consumption would be far less. Unfortunately, global agri-business has removed access to agriculture for the many of us. This begins to get closer to the root cause of the systemic illness: alienation from agriculture and, by implication, alienation from the natural world. Fukuoka points out that modern consumer societies like Japan and most Western nations have become very vulnerable, as their estrangement from agriculture means that people will lack a means of survival in the (inevitable) event of an economic collapse.

When Fukuoka looks to poorer countries, he almost seems more hopeful. He suggests that many Asian and African countries have retained a “proud agrarian ethic” and that for them, a shift towards more urbanisation in the manner of Japan and the West would be highly destructive. In saying this, he retains the somewhat romantic notion that agrarian populations would rather not be a part of modern society, citing an Ethiopian nomad who once told him that accumulating material possessions was a degrading way to live. He suggests that most of the world’s farmers see skyscrapers as ‘tombstones of the human race’ (Fukuoka, 2012: 56).1

Asian Farming
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

Fukuoka provides an insightful analysis of how post-colonial states came to lose their biodiversity and farmers’ self-sufficiency. Referring specifically to Eastern Africa, he suggests that the initial disruption to natural farming in the region came with the colonial imposition of monocultures, which killed off the forests and native varieties of cereals and vegetables. Ultimately, this left farmers in a position in which they lacked access to the seeds necessary for basic self-sufficiency. Furthermore, they drew up boundaries and imposed national parks on the people, unsettling the grazing patterns of nomads, which had occurred in a sustainable, cyclical fashion for centuries, forcing them into ever-more inconvenient arrangements and ultimately leading them to conflict amongst themselves. All of this was compounded by the fact that postcolonial states have tended to promote cash-cropping and urbanisation at the expense of rural self-sufficiency. Indeed, Fukuoka claims that on travelling to Somalia, he was requested by authorities not to promote farmer self-sufficiency too much by providing them with seeds.

In short, Fukuoka sees the colonial intervention, the imposition of modernity, and our alienation from nature as the source of the ‘disease’. The ‘cure’ can only be to rebuild the rural self-sufficiency that colonialism pulled away. This implies revegetation of lands damaged by decades and centuries of intensive cultivation, re-building agri-biodiversity and a re-establishing a healthy relationship with the earth. This is the pathway towards healing the world and healing ourselves.

 

Natural Farming to Revegetate the World’s Deserts

In the final quarter of his life, revegetating deserts and deforested areas in developing countries became one of Fukuoka-sensei’s chief interests. In doing this, he followed the same basic principles as he had in formulating his methods of natural farming. His guiding assumption was that the trouble of desertification was misguided human interventions into nature, and that the solution lay in removing these interventions and allowing nature to run its course.

The mainstream solution to desertification has been irrigation. The assumption is that more water will allow dried-out areas to be cropped once again. In Sowing Seeds in the Desert, Fukuoka (2012) argues against this approach, as it relies on the construction of harmful dams or the tapping of finite ground water reserves and may ultimately lead to the salinisation of soils. Instead, he promotes minimal use of water and the careful broadcasting of diverse seeds. One must sow ground-covers and grasses to cool the soil and create a mulch; trees to provide shade and bring water up from underground; poisonous plants to keep away goats; legumes to promote the proliferation of micro-organisms in the soil; and densely growing plants such as bamboo to prevent erosion along riverbanks. In this way, he deployed the methods of natural farming to address desertification and claimed some success in this endeavour in Eastern Africa and India.

Ideally, Fukuoka argued that the best approach to revegetation was to broadcast a diverse variety of seeds across the desert in clay pellets. The pellets would provide the seeds protection, moisture and sustenance and allow them to remain dormant for long periods. From there, one could leave the process up to nature. When rain finally came, suitable seeds would germinate and begin a process of rebuilding a natural ecosystem. Though most of the plants would not survive the desert conditions, even those that died might remain in the soil as mulch, nourishing other plants and cooling the soil. Trees would take root and bring up water from beneath the ground, simultaneously hydrating and cooling. Soon enough, animals would return, and a chain reaction of greening would be initiated.

Seedball
Image from Wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

In spreading these seeds, Fukuoka cared little for whether the seeds were native or not. Certainly, having some local varieties would be important, as plants from arid regions would be most suitable to the dry, hot, occasionally salty conditions of desertified lands. Nonetheless, Fukuoka insists that the movement of organisms has already become globalised and there is no point in imposing limits on which plants to sow. What’s more, the global environment has changed so much that there is no guarantee that the native varieties are, any more, the best suited to rebuild the deserts. As such, he suggested suggests:

I think we should mix all the species together and scatter them worldwide, completely doing away with their uneven distribution. This would give nature a full palette to work with as it establishes a new balance given the current conditions. I call this the Second Genesis. (Fukuoka, 2012, p. 95)

Initiating this ‘Second Genesis,’ however, proved challenging. As I described in a previous article in this series, Fukuoka was ultimately very disappointed with the limited global impact of his work. This was especially true of his efforts to combat desertification. During our visit to the farm in November, his grandson Hiroki-san informed us that Fukuoka-sensei felt disappointed that despite the tremendous potential of his plans to revegetate deserts, they were only being practiced on small tracts of land.

 

 

Fukuoka in India

During our visit to Fukuoka-sensei’s farm in Iyo, his grandson, Hiroki-san, informed us that in all the world there were probably only ten people practicing natural farming in the manner that his grandfather had taught. Many others had adopted aspects of his methods, but were unwilling to leave things to nature to such a large extent as Fukuoka-sensei – they are only partially practicing ‘natural farming’ (and Hiroki-san included himself in this). Those who were practicing a pure form of natural farming were mostly doing it as an experiment or as a way of life, but not as a commercial initiative, and they were overwhelmingly from wealthier countries. Furthermore, the overwhelming number of visitors coming to the farm today are from Europe and North America. It is telling that a farming method that has the potential to mend the damaged lands of the post-colonial world and which requires very little expenditure on labour and other inputs, has not become more popular amongst the peasant societies of Asia, Africa and Latin America. This was despite Masanobu Fukuoka’s extensive efforts at revegetation in the Philippines, Thailand and East Africa.

The one developing country in which Fukuoka-sensei did made some in-roads, however, was India. Indeed, even today, The One-Straw Revolution can often be found in a great variety of India’s bookstores and is well-known, ironically, amongst the urban middle classes. In India in the early 1990s, Fukuoka found a government receptive to his ideas regarding the regeneration of arid lands, which agreed to support projects of aerial seed drops. According to Fukuoka’s own account in Sowing Seeds in the Desert, these seed drops, in which clay seed balls were dropped from planes on damaged lands, were mostly successful and led to the sprouting of wild rice along the Ganges and new mangroves in the Ganges Delta.

For many pages of Sowing Seeds in the Desert, however, Fukuoka elaborates on one of his less successful endeavours – the Chambal Gorge, a desertified region of Madhya Pradesh. This region, once a forest home to elephants and tigers, had been subject to rapid and severe desertification. He found the lands red and barren. Even after seed dropping, very little vegetation had taken root: the seeds either failed to germinate, were washed away by rains or were eaten by goats. Fukuoka was forced to reflect in some length as to why his seed ball method was not generating results. He came to the conclusion that this land had been so damaged, that repair would take longer than planned. Though his spirits were lifted by the few patches of green growing in the shadows between rocks, he ultimately had to consider the root causes of desertification which were making recovery so difficult. In this region, he claimed, deforestation, over-grazing and erosion had severed the vital connections between water, soil, plants and micro-organisms, which, in nature make up a single, living unit. There was, essentially, no living soil.

Chambal River
Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay

In his discussion of these issues in Madhya Pradesh, Fukuoka drifts into deep reflection on the causes of the crisis, but a clear solution is not provided. His final suggestions to the Indian government, however, was that they should simply be more persistent and continue to drop seed balls year after year with the hope that some would eventually generate the desired effect. He suggested that all barriers to the free transfer of seeds from Japan should be lifted (such as quarantining), that there should be no restrictions on access to wasteland (to allow seeding to be done by farmers) and that farmers should be given free and easy access to seed banks. He complains that India’s onerous bureaucratic procedures were making it too difficult for farmers to gain access to seeds and sow them. The process needed to be simplified. Having said all this, given the very modest gains from aerial seed dropping, it seems unlikely that simply allowing the further spread of seeds would generate instant, miraculous results.

Part of Fukuoka’s attraction to India was the strong resonance between his ideas and those of Mahatma Gandhi. Both Fukuoka and Gandhi had been critical of science, both encouraged simple agrarian lifestyles and both critiqued the way that modernity encouraged a proliferation of desires for material goods that could never be met. In 1997, Fukuoka again travelled to India to attend a Gandhi seminar, to mark 50 years of India’s Independence. In a film documenting this visit, we see Fukuoka speaking of a world in turmoil, in which more and more people are coming to him for direction. Here, he asserts the value of Gandhi’s philosophy, suggesting that we are at a crossroads and that the fate of the world rests on how effectively we can embrace Gandhi and live simpler lives, restraining our desires. Despite this, there are clearly points of difference. In dialogue with Gandhians, he refused to accept purist adherence to vegetarianism. He acknowledges that too much meat is not good, but argues that prohibitions on eating particular foods on the basis of religion are causing people to become confused. Nature should be the guide to what is acceptable to eat and nature does not have a problem with one animal consuming another.

The documentary is also revealing in showing the kind of advice Fukuoka-sensei attempted to bestow on Indian farmers. During his visit to India in 1997, Fukuoka-sensei met with a number of practicing natural farmers, many of whom were struggling and in need of advice. Interestingly, the documentary shows that he was equally philosophical in his dialogues with farmers as he was in his books – speaking of the futility of human knowledge and the value in leaving things to nature. He was purist in his adherence to principle, reprimanding farmers for even slight tillage of the soil or having fixed ideas of how nature ought to behave. He holds to the value of scattering seed, and makes the point that in desertified lands, one need only be more rigorous, scattering seed balls continually until they take root.

At the end of the film, Fukuoka-sensei visits the farm of Bhaskar Save, perhaps the most prominent farmer to be inspired by both his philosophy and that of Gandhi. Touring Save’s farm on a bullock cart, Fukuoka declares it to be superior to his own farm and the best natural farm he has seen anywhere in the world.

Although many in India seem to have been inspired by the philosophy of Fukuoka, very few have strictly adopted the practices of natural farming. Rajagopalan, head of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, in a piece on the Foundation’s website, writes in great praise of Fukuoka and the harmonies between his philosophies and Gandhi’s. Yet, he concludes his piece with a ‘cautionary note,’ advising that the method of simply scattering seed balls is not appropriate for the Indian climate and that to attempt to apply it there would be ‘disastrous.’ While I believe this may be an over-statement, it is noteworthy that even Bhaskar Save, supposedly the chief example of a natural farmer in India, writes within his own publications that he is not a natural farmer in the purest sense. Save points out that although his mature orchards can be said to be “natural” and the goal is always to establish a system that needs minimal human intervention, young plants still need to be cared for by the farmer in the early stages, just as a child needs care from a mother (Save, 2008: 27-28) . Fukuoka-sensei, by contrast, advocated leaving nature to provide this love and care for the young plants.

Given that someone like Bhaskar Save, who had become an ideological figurehead for natural farming in India, was unable to carry out the philosophy to the letter, it seems unlikely that the average farmer could find herself comfortable with ever being a purely ‘natural farmer.’ In the above-mentioned documentary, Fukuoka talks to farmers who have attempted his approach and encountered losses. After they describe their experiences to him, he tells them that the problem was the sowing time. Seeds were scattered either too early or too late. He advises them to experiment the following season broadcasting seed balls either one month earlier or one month after and suggests that after 2-3 years he will have it figured out. One wonders if the average Indian farmer, knee-deep in debt and confronted with fluctuating markets and the insecurity of environmental change, can afford the additional gamble of a farming method whose results are contingent upon trial-and-error experimentation on each and every farm.

My own research has focused on attempts to promote more sustainable farming systems in India. The farmers I have encountered who had experimented with Fukuoka-sensei’s methods mostly discontinued. They retained a strong belief in the theory and philosophy of natural farming, but their own experience of failure with ‘do-nothing’ techniques led them to believe that Fukuoka-sensei’s level of intuitive understanding of nature far surpassed their own and that it was not possible for them to be true natural farmers in practice. They remained inspired by his ideas but could not follow them all the way to the end. Perhaps, ultimately, this is the more ‘natural’ approach: nature rarely follows the same principles in all circumstances – it makes do with what it can manage, forges impromptu, contingent solutions, and combines awkwardly diverse elements to build systems and sub-systems most suited to the local level.

 

 

Do-Nothing Development?

Despite a tremendous global interest in Fukuoka-sensei’s ideas, the practical impact of natural farming on the ground has been rather modest: a fact of which Fukuoka himself was all-too-painfully aware. I believe that the core reason for this is that unlike other systems of sustainable, chemical-free farming (such as agro-ecology and permaculture), natural farming has not been able to pitch itself as a solution to farming communities’ most urgent social and economic needs. Indeed, where agro-ecology and permaculture promote scientifically-backed methods to allow communities to meet their aspirations, Fukuoka instead offers a more bitter medicine: communities should reconsider their aspirations – consider wanting less, doing less.

A further challenge of natural farming is ensuring that the methods of promotion are congruent with Fukuoka-sensei’s overall philosophy. Grand initiatives to revegetate large tracts of land are often too dependent upon centralised, state-led interventions that require a great deal of planning, money, technology and long-term commitment. Yet, natural farming claims to aim for effortless action – action that is an extension of natural processes. In the context of global neoliberal hegemony, however, natural farming is quite the opposite: it is like swimming against the flow of the stream.

Could we imagine Fukuoka’s ‘do-nothing farming’ as being embedded within a model of ‘do-nothing development’? A model of development that, rather than being dependent upon large coordinated teams of middle class development workers is instead a kind of ‘minimal gesture’: a passing on of a few simple tools or ideas, that quickly proliferate through the ‘natural’ dispositions of rural communities throughout the world?

Why begin with what is challenging? Why attempt to convert commercial farmers, for whom it has become ‘natural’ to farm for money? Why attempt to capture large state-funded projects, when it is known that the state, in the long term, will always act in the interests of capital? Why not recognise the domains in which natural farming does resonate with what people do naturally?

Children have an innate interest in nature and the method of creating clay seed balls and scattering them in desertified and damaged lands could be seen as great fun. Sowing seeds in the desert could easily be embedded in school science programs, as a kind of experiment. Revegetation could be seen not as ‘work’ but as ‘play’ and also ‘research.’ Such a project could be an opportunity for learning for students on a wide array of subjects: from biodiversity and ecological inter-connectedness to plant biology. And ultimately the seeds that such projects would sow within the children’s hearts might be the most fruitful of all.

 

 

Endnotes

  1. I would suggest that on this issue Fukuoka greatly under-estimates the pull that modernity exerts over all of us, including farmers. In my experience in India, the majority of people in the countryside are looking for pathways out of agriculture. We need to accept this fact to move forward.

 

 

References

Fukuoka, M. (1978/2009). The One-Straw Revolution (L. Korn, C. Pearce & T. Kurosawa, Trans.). New York Review Books: New York.

Fukuoka, M. (1996/2012). Sowing Seeds in the Desert (L. Korn, Ed. & Trans.). White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Rosset, P. (2000). Lessons from the Green Revolution. Oakland: Food First [online]. Available from: http://www.foodfirst.org/media/opeds/2000/4-greenrev.html

Save, B. (2008). The Great Agricultural Challenge (transcribed by Bharat Mansata). Kolkata: Earthcare Books.

Vanhaute, E. (2011). From famine to food crisis: What history can teach us about local and global subsistence crises. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(1), 47–65.

Dr Trent Brown

I'm a researcher in geography at the University of Melbourne. My research focuses on the social aspects of sustainable agriculture and agricultural skill development, particularly in India. I'm the author of two books, Farmers, Subalterns, and Activists: Social Politics of Sustainable Agriculture in India and India: Continuity and Change in the Twenty-First Century (coauthored with John Harriss and Craig Jeffrey).

4 Comments

  1. Hi, I live in the The Great Basin high desert on border of Nevada and California. I live in a natural desert and I have had different levels of success with spreading seeds. There are specific species (sagebrush, rabbit brush, penstemmon,
    rocky mountain bee balm) that do very well here and can be spread randonly onto ground with no irrigation. The problem comes with your zone 1, 2 and 3 where you add irrigation. Irrigation will cause a massive amount of weeds and you have to seed at 4 times the recommended rate to barely compete with weeds in spring. I have found that cluster planting perennials and deep heavy mulch works alot better. Because I live in a cold desert the growing season is very marginal and you have to give plants proper spacing or else they compete for sunlight and become leggy and stunted. This is all a massive amount of trial and error. I have seeded whole areas with 1000s of seeds and watched as all plants become stunted after initial success and them the weeds find away to shade out your weakling plants. Alfalfa has been a champion. Extremely drought tolerant, heals the soil and grows massive during the random torrential high desert storms. I have altered my seeding methods to include a catch crop at end of summer when most of the weeds stop sprouting. Its mostly daikon radish (fukuoka inspired) because I can still harvest them under the snow up until Christmas when the ground freezes. I think your very right in that methods need to be applied to the right circumstance. Fukuoka was a master of his environment. And his commitment to letting nature run its course is a spiritual journey worth undertaking. But I specifically had to alter my course and use desert ecology to guide me. Thanks for the article, I have loved all of them!

  2. Or, in answer to the Endnote 1, transform our society and economy to the degree where natural farmers are recognized as the caretakers of not just the environment but humanity, and be paid accordingly; not crushed by the “free market” economy to the lowest level of subsistence and even, as in India, suicide.

    We living in a world in which the biggest and most wealthy companies produce nothing except a waste of time and energy, ie the Facebooks of the world, and speculatively gambling on imaginary 1s and 0s in the money market is worth billions, while the people who produce the food & environment we survive on can’t even afford the basics of life.

    That is something that needs changed, How … I have no idea.

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