Did Humanity Make a Wrong Turn at Agriculture?

Natural Farming with Manasobu Fukuoka

PermaculturePlanet (2012)

Film Review

The late Manasobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a Japanese natural farmer and philosopher celebrated for his natural farming and re-vegetation of desertified lands.

I first became interested in Fukuoka’s work when I was researching organic methods of ridding my veggie garden of the obnoxious weed oxalis. According to one website, the only effective organic method of controlling oxalis was to seed your vegetables in a continuous green cover crop of clover or alfalfa. After trying it, I found this approach not only suppressed oxalis and other weeds, but it greatly improved soil quality and vegetable growth, while simultaneously reducing the need for watering.

Fukukoa also used trees, shrubs and naturally growing weeds, in addition to nitrogen-fixing legumes, to support his fruit trees and vegetables. His methodology specifically forbids plowing, cultivation, watering, weeding or use of manure or prepared compost.

It strikes me that this that this approach closely approximates the original horticulture anthropologist Toby Hemenway describes as preceding agriculture by tens of thousands of years. Fukukoa comes to the identical conclusion Hemenway does – that it was in the transition from horticulture to agriculture, which systematically replaced natural landscapes for monoculture crops, that humankind made the first wrong turn.

According to Fukukoa, turning the soil over through plowing or cultivating is the worst because it kills the delicate soil microorganisms that support healthy plant growth. When a farmer employs natural methods, the trees, moles, legumes and earthworms do all the plowing for him. Artificially watering is nearly as damaging because it tends to compact the soil and stunt root development.

After seventy years of perfecting his technique, Fukukoa discovered the best way to sew vegetable in a pre-existing patch of trees, shrubs and weeds is to encase the seeds in clay balls he throws directly into the weeds. By encasing the seeds in clay, he protects them from being devoured by birds and insects.

He was always highly critical of agricultural methods that deliberately fell trees to produce monoculture crops supported by chemical herbicides and pesticides. Trees are essential in natural farming because they protect smaller plants against disease and play a fundamental role in producing rain. Denuding a region of trees is the fastest way to produce a desert.

Fukukoa is also highly critical of lawns, a European innovation he equates with the beginning of so-called civilization. They are also one of the main causes of insect infestation.

Crop yields produced by Fukukoa and his students always vastly exceed those industrial agriculture produces. With the development of agriculture, humankind became so obsessed with reducing labor inputs and improving efficiency, they failed to recognize they were killing their soil and destroying their yields.

The film below profiles one of Fukukoa’s last public appearances, a visit to some of his students’ farms in India.


*Six months after planting my first cover crop, a local permaculture instructor advised me that raising the soil pH (with lime) is also an extremely effective method of eradicating oxalis.

22 thoughts on “Did Humanity Make a Wrong Turn at Agriculture?

  1. Thanks for this most interesting post, both for the approach and techniques. I’ve been helping care for my mother for 2 years, sketchily tending her yard and flowers, and notice already, (now that she can no longer do her obsessive weeding — and I just won’t do so much work) that many plants seem to prefer … let’s call it benign neglect, not being handled, disturbed and manicured constantly. Some can’t take any competition — things we have overbred, or plants that shouldn’t be inn this spot perhaps, but many things thrive amid the bountiful weeds.

    A minor point — I believe lime is used to raise soil PH, making it more alkaline. – Linda

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    • Interesting your mention of applying lime. A local permaculture educator advised me last year that I should lime my soil twice a year (I was only doing it once) to get rid of the oxalis. It worked a treat.

      It’s also been my experience that plants do better if they’re left to their own devices.

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  2. After watching the film and listening to Mr. Fukuoka explain his science/philosophy, the answer to the question in the title “wrong turn at agriculture?” seems clear – definitely a wrong turn. Amazing to consider the entire Earth was at one time covered with plant life; abundance. How is it that this man’s nature-cooperative, far superior farming perspective isn’t the center of discussions about feeding the world’s growing population. How is it the man’s name isn’t known around the world. The man was talking about (re)creating paradise. Outstanding information.

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    • Fortunately I’m seeing more and more studies showing that organic methods (permaculture, intensive biodynamic, etc) produced far better yields than industrial agriculture – without killing the soil in the process.

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  3. Pingback: Did Humanity Make a Wrong Turn at Agriculture? | The Most Revolutionary Act | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  4. Stuart, I think you would enjoy “Food Chains” as well. It’s a film about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Fair Food Program and farmworker justice. It’s airing on Netflix.

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    • Thanks, Jeff. I’ll check it out. Kiwis have only had access to Netflix for the last few months, and apparently there are copyright issues about showing certain American films outside the US. It’s the same with Hulu.

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  5. I saw a PBS piece on this just the other day. There are people in Brooklyn, New York, who are planting gardens on high-rise buildings, above most of the pollution. And they are using this old method, and when they till, the coverage enriches the soil. And they also crop rotate as well.

    But the Merican corporate farmer couldn’t make as much money this way, so guess what..?

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    • It’s my sense that industrial agriculture is mainly run by corporations with CEOs and boards of directors. The so-called farmers are really share croppers – the exploited (many illegal immigrants because they’re easier to control) employees of these corporations.

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