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.

How Permaculture Can Save Humanity

food forest

London Food Forest

How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but Not Civilization

by Toby Hemenway (2013)

Film Review

Below is another great video on the history of horticulture by permaculturist and ecologist Toby Hemenway. Hemenway’s main premise is that agriculture – even non-industrial agriculture – is unsustainable. He approaches the issue from an anthropological perspective, by examining prehistoric cultures that became extinct as a direct result of transitioning from horticulture to agriculture.

Hemenway defines horticulture as food production using small garden and food forests that incorporate and support existing ecosystems. Agriculture, in contrast, destroys ecosystems to create vast clear cuts dedicated to single crops. The archeological record reveals that agriculture first developed in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) around 10,000 BC. At the time it was lush forest and bush. However after 3,000 of artificial irrigation, the soil became too salty to support life. The land, which became a desert, still hasn’t recovered. The same thing happened in ancient Egypt and Greece.

Archeological evidence reveals that all agricultural civilizations follow a typical pattern of soil depletion after an average of 1,000 years. Then they either die out or moving to new land via conquest. According to Hemenway, the Oil Age was a great boon to our current agricultural civilization. Farm machinery and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides provided an immense burst in world food production. Unfortunately this only hastened soil degradation. At the same time a steep price increase (related to oil a natural gas scarcity) and made them unavailable for a growing number of farmers, especially in the developing world.

Hemenway also asserts that the prehistoric importance of horticulture has been greatly underestimated owing to three myths widely promulgated over the last two hundred years.

Myth one: food surpluses produced by agriculture are essential to produce the leisure time and specialization required for culture to flourish.

New archaeological evidence reveals human beings engaged in cultural activities such as basket weaving, art, and music for hundreds of years prior to the development of agriculture.

Myth two: horticulture was merely a brief transition between hunter gather and agricultural societies.

Fossil and other evidence suggests that Native Americans planted and maintained most of the East Coast, Mississippi, and Amazon as food forests for more than four thousand years before Europeans destroyed their horticultural societies.

Myth three (thanks to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes): horticultural cultures are made up of savages who live short, nasty, brutish lives.

Anthropological and archeological evidence suggests exactly the opposite. Hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies devote far less time to securing and producing food than farmers. The former spend an average of three hours a day harvesting a day’s worth of food for their families; whereas pre-industrial farmers spent an average of two to three days to producing one day of food. This excluded crops they sold to pay rent.

Skeletal remains suggest people in horticultural cultural societies were healthier, taller, and lived long than people in pre-industrial agricultural societies. Moreover the advent of agriculture introduced a host of degenerative diseases, including arthritis and deadly viral epidemics (influenza, small pox, measles, polio, etc) that people caught from domesticated animals.

Worst of all, the introduction of agriculture led to the advent of class society, military conquest, and famine. As Hemenway points out, war and famine are virtually unknown in hunter gatherer societies that migrate to follow their food source. Likewise it’s virtually impossible for a marauding army to steal the perennials out of a food forest.

Permaculture to the Rescue

Hemenway views our current food production system as a major culprit in the current ecological and resource crisis the planet faces (e.g. climate change, ocean acidification, mass species extinction, and fossil fuel, fresh water and topsoil depletion). He estimates that without drastic change, our species will survive another fifty years at most. If, however, human species could navigate a successful return to a horticultural society, they could potential persist for millennia.

He sees the widespread adoption of permaculture as a first step in a return to horticulture. Permaculture is an 80 year old branch of ecological design that produces sustainable buildings and self-maintained food production systems by modeling them on natural ecosystems. The movement already has several million adherents worldwide, through the Transition Town and comparable relocalization movements.

photo credit: London Permaculture via photopin cc