I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming which results in making the work easier instead of harder. "How about not doing this?" "How about not doing that?" — that was my way of thinking.

I ultimately reached the conclusion that there was no need to plow, no need to apply fertilizer, no need to make compost, no need to use insecticide. When you get right down to it, there are few agricultural practices that are necessary.

The reason that man’s improved techniques seem necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them.

— Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

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Masanobu Fukuoka died last week at the age of 95.

Like the 20th century’s other great critic of industrial agriculture, Albert Howard, Fukuoka got his start as a conventional plant pathologist. Both spent lots of time staring into microscopes looking to "solve" the various problems associated with teasing food out of the earth.

They came of age when plant science was beginning to splinter into a set of specializations, each viewing particular aspects of agriculture in isolation.

Fukuoka and Howard both decided that the conventional scientific approach led to disaster: a downward spiral of "solutions" to problems created by the previous solution. As Fukuoka, Japan’s most celebrated alternative farmer, put it in his masterpiece, The One-Straw Revolution:

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Specialists in various fields gather together and observe a stalk of rice. The insect disease specialist sees only insect damage, the specialist in plant nutrition considers only the plant’s vigor.

These specialists are blind to the broader context in which the rice plant thrives or flails — and to the vast ignorance that surrounds their narrow bands of knowledge. Many conventional scientists (such as the one now shaping our nation’s foreign policy with regard to ag development) exude arrogance about humanity’s ability to control "nature"; Fukuoka preached humility.

"The irony is that science has served only to show how small human knowledge is," he writes.

Here’s another irony:

Fukuoka’s “do-nothing” style of farming is extremely difficult in our era. As he writes, the “the natural balance has been … badly upset”; our farmland has become dependent on heroic interventions. Restoring the proper balance for do-nothing agriculture takes time and resources. Fukuoka offered no one-size-fits-all method for proper farming. He urged farmers everywhere to discover simple, low-input, synergistic/symbiotic approaches appropriate to their areas. That project takes time and resources. It could — and should — be the main task of publicly funded ag research, and indeed of all ag policy. It isn’t, though.

As Fukuoka well knew, you can’t just take over a piece of farmland, “do nothing,” and expect a bumper harvest. He tells an anecdote about his first attempt to farm without chemicals after abandoning his science career. He took over a patch of tangerine trees owned by his father, and proceeded to “do nothing.” The result: “the branches became intertwined, insects attacked the trees, and the entire orchard withered away in no time.” He concludes:

I had acted in the belief that everything should be left to take its natural course, but I found that if you apply that way of thinking all at once, before long, things do not go so well. This is abandonment, not “natural farming.”

In our time, small-scale farmers operate under brutal economic pressure — and the resources needed to develop a truly sustainable agriculture too often lie beyond their grasp. So we slog on, doing our best, often falling short.

Fukuoka’s vision offers a beacon, a goal, an ideal to strive for. Making predictions is arrogant, but I’ll venture one anyway: As long as humans are still scratching their sustenance out of the earth, Fukuoka’s work will remain an inspiration.

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