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.