Natural versus Organic Farming: The Wise Simplicity of Masanobu Fukuoka

It is useful to consider the differences in the agricultural methods that were espoused and practised by two revered theorists of agricultural theory in the twentieth century, the British Albert Howard and the Japanese Masanobu Fukuoka. Although there are similarities in their methods, there are also important differences between them.

Organic farming has been greatly influenced by the agricultural practices advocated by Howard, who spent many years studying traditional farming methods in India, and is regarded as the father of the modern-day organic farming and gardening movement. This is evident in the diligence with which organic farmers and gardeners compost their kitchen scraps and other organic waste, and the fact that they continue to dig up or plough the soil in order to enrich it by adding fertile substances such as manure and decomposed organic matter. Composting is, of course, beneficial for the environment. The question is whether all this strenuous human labour to decompose organic matter more rapidly than it would decompose if it were left alone is actually necessary, as Howard and many other agricultural advocates have argued.

The main difference between them is that Howard did not reject science as completely and radically as Fukuoka did. This is why Howard continued to advocate unnecessary practices like composting and then ploughing the soil to make the composted matter immediately available to the plants’ roots. Here is a description of a limited experiment that was performed by an experienced British gardener with the practice of “no digging,” which is one of the main tenets of Fukuoka’s agricultural method:

Harry Dodson recalls the columns of controversy over Mr King’s methods, particularly his ‘no digging strip’. This recommended sowing vegetables not into land which had been dug but on to soil on which 3 or 4 in. of well-prepared compost had merely been spread. Harry says that at the time, like a good many others, he was sceptical of this method, although he had never put it to the test as fortunately he had always had plenty of farmyard manure and had not had to rely on compost. However, having demonstrated for the television cameras how conventional compost heaps were made, he gamely volunteered to deplete one of his heaps by covering a strip of undug garden with about 4 in. of compost. Harry has now revised his ideas on Mr King, for the celeriac he planted in this mattress of compost became huge, and the New Zealand spinach and marrows ‘went mad’. In fact, marrows planted in mid-April were ready for cutting before May was over.[1]

Eventually, all formerly living matter is decomposed – it is simply a question of time. Of course, it takes Nature much longer to decompose more durable natural substances such as wood and bones than it takes to decompose leaves and annual plants, and so the industrious and impatient Westerner grinds the bones into powder and reduces the wood into smaller chips to accelerate the process of decomposition. But, apart from trees, most plant matter is rapidly decomposed, at most within a year or two; and what is not decomposed rapidly and made available immediately to the cultivated plants’ roots will, if it takes a little longer, be decomposed more slowly and be made available for future cultivated crops. After all, we do not need to grow crops only for this year or the next – we need to continue growing crops for as long as there are hungry human mouths and stomachs to be fed. Provided the dead vegetal or animal matter is not burned[2] or removed from the vicinity of the soil, nothing that is produced by Nature is lost.

Roughly speaking, the way soil fertility is maintained or improved is as follows: all organic matter, whether vegetal or animal, is eaten by big animals or by microbes, fungi, and small animals such as worms and insects that break it down into a form that can be used by plants. No digestive system is one hundred percent efficient,[3] and so, after it has been broken down, whether physically by chewing, chemically by stomach acid, or biologically by microbes, a significant quantity of nutrients passes through the animal’s digestive tract unabsorbed and is deposited on or in the soil, where it can be used by other organisms.

That this process of decomposition occurs everywhere in Nature is shown by the complete absence of decomposition in the case of sterile soils, such as those that are used for indoor plants, which do not contain the microorganisms that would normally break down dead plant matter. If dried-up leaves and flowers are left on the soil, they will remain in that state indefinitely. Hence, in order for soil fertility to be maintained or improved, there must be a constant source of organic matter for these decomposing organisms to consume in non-sterilized soils. They must also be protected from the harmful effects of the Sun, wind, and rain. All of these necessary conditions are achieved by the natural farming method that was developed and practised with great success by Fukuoka.

This explains why the indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides – poisons which were developed during World War Two in order to kill enemy soldiers and which, after the war, found a non-military application in the wholesale destruction of Nature – is so foolish: because it kills both harmful – from our limited and selfish human perspective, at least – and beneficial organisms.

If one understands the great Law of Nature and the many complex and interrelated natural processes that exist, as Fukuoka did, and others like him who strive to live in harmony with, rather than in opposition to, Nature – that there exists a balance in Nature that keeps the populations of all species of organisms in check, including those that we call pests and weeds, provided one doesn’t alter the natural environment so much as to favour certain species and allow them to proliferate – then one will understand what all the many scientists and agricultural “experts” fail to see: the simple fact that, in many cases, it is not necessary to use pesticides and herbicides, those dangerous poisons which we stupid humans release into the environment because of our inability to understand the complex and harmonious way in which Nature functions.

All the unnecessary labour on Howard’s part of composting, spreading the compost on the fields, and then ploughing the soil to mix the compost and soil together was due to his childish impatience for immediate, controlled, and verifiable results, as was revealed by his desire to prove that his methods were scientifically better than the conventional farming methods that were in use in his time. That Howard has been much more influential in the West than Fukuoka is because most Westerners cannot accept Fukuoka’s complete rejection of science and everything this rejection entails, so great is their unquestioning faith in science, due to their having been indoctrinated with its teachings and dogmas from a young age.

This desire led Howard to contradict himself. In page after page of his works, he writes about the great importance of the mycorrhizal relationship between fungi and plants that mutually benefits both species. The fungi fix nitrogen in the soil, thereby making it available for the plant’s roots and growth, while the plants provide the fungi with glucose. And yet, it is obvious that ploughing the soil greatly disturbs and destroys this relationship by unearthing the roots and exposing the minute, beneficial fungi to the harsh conditions that exist above the soil’s surface, such as the Sun’s radiation, large temperature fluctuations, and the drying effect of both the Sun and wind. Because they are not plants, all fungi require damp and dark conditions in order to survive: eliminate either of these conditions and they die. Howard failed to draw the proper conclusions from his observations about the tremendous vegetal growth that takes place year after year in a forest without any human intervention. These observations should have led him roughly to the same method that was developed by Fukuoka while tending his family’s farm in Japan.

And yet, this does not mean that everything Fukuoka did and taught was right. Like many other advocates of new practices, such as Gandhi and his principle of non-violence, he was wont to take his principles to an extreme. For example, he was opposed to pruning fruit trees because he believed it was better to let them grow as naturally as possible. But he himself did several things that were unnatural, such as sowing rice seeds over his fields in order to increase their number and therefore the total annual harvest of rice, encapsulating each grain of rice in clay in order to prevent animals from eating them before they germinated, and cutting the rice stalks, letting them dry, and then, once the rice was threshed, scattering them over the ground in order to accelerate their decomposition. Moreover, he planted acacia trees to aerate and fix nitrogen in the soil, and bring up nutrients from deeper layers in the ground. He then cut the mature trees for firewood. Clearly he had no qualms about using these trees for his selfish purposes, rather than allowing them to live out their natural lives unmolested by humans. If he had wanted to live wholly in accordance with Nature, he would have forgotten all these human stratagems and lived like all other animals, content merely to gather the bounty that Nature provides without seeking to force Nature to grow and develop in certain ways.

If, as he advocated, we ought to live as natural a life as possible, then we would allow disease to control our numbers rather than birth control; and when the crop fails, we would stoically accept starvation as our lot. But clearly most people are not willing to accept these and other natural outcomes – disease, starvation, war, and being attacked and eaten by predatory animals – all of which are Nature’s means of controlling the populations of social animals like us. Hence, it does not follow, as Fukuoka believed, that whatever is natural is automatically better than all forms of human intervention, for modern humans, due to their cleverness, cannot help intervening in Nature and doing things that are contrary to it in order to improve their chances of survival. Other species like lizards and lions, snakes and seals, and pelicans and pomegranates would also do things to improve their chances of survival if only they possessed the cleverness to think of them and the physical ability to implement them. It is just that, for whatever reason, we humans have a monopoly on certain kinds of cleverness and ingenuity on this planet.

Human intervention is not wrong, per se, as Fukuoka believed. There is nothing wrong with intervening in the natural world to produce outcomes that we desire, such as an abundant harvest of a particular plant that we like to eat. But he was right in questioning the wisdom of many conventional practices, including those that have become widely adopted and are therefore believed to be beneficial or necessary, such as tilling the earth or using artificial fertilizers and pesticides, but in fact are harmful or unnecessary.

Intervene as little as possible in Nature’s age-old processes, but intervene when necessary, while choosing the method that does as little harm as possible to Nature and all its many wonderful living elements. There is an ancient wisdom in Nature that we immature and miseducated human fools will never be able to fathom, let alone equal with our artificial scientific knowledge, no matter how long our species remains on the Earth. There are things about the world that science can never understand because it is blind to their existence. In their busy and never-ending obsessive mania to study, measure, observe, calibrate, test, theorize, verify, and quantify, scientists have overlooked some very important truths about the world. This ancient wisdom is possessed by the indigenous peoples whom we scientifically-educated simpletons dismiss as primitive savages because they lack the marvellous benefits of our technological civilization – a civilization that, at the furious rate it is hurtling along the road of mindless progress towards the technological precipice that awaits us, will not last anywhere near as long as theirs lasted before we intellectual barbarians arrived and destroyed or corrupted their traditional, respectful, and harmonious ways of life.

To arrive at the deeply respectful and harmonious relationship that Fukuoka achieved with Nature, it is essential that we cease regarding Nature as being made up of discrete, individual components that we variously categorize, whether scientifically or not, as plants, animals, insects, predators, diseases, pests, human beings, weeds, and, more particularly, those organisms that are beneficial and those that we regard as harmful, and therefore have no compunction in eradicating wholesale. For this arbitrary, mistaken, and, in many ways, profoundly immoral division of the world into the good and the bad – into those organisms that we value, cherish, and seek to preserve, and those organisms that we hate, despise, and seek to destroy – imposes very narrow human values on a system that is infinitely greater than our petty and selfish estimations of its worth. Furthermore, it separates us from Nature, and it is our alienation from, and consequent failure to recognize, the tremendously generous well-spring of all Life that is the cause of so many of modern humanity’s problems. For a person like Masanobu Fukuoka, the Buddha, or St Francis of Assisi, who understands one’s true place in Nature and the Universe, as well as the interconnections that bind all Life together, will feel immense gratitude at Nature’s generosity in creating so much abundance, and will, by properly regarding the Gift of Life as the greatest of all of Nature’s many gifts, seek to minimize as much as possible the harm that one’s fleeting existence on this Earth causes to other organisms, who are, in the fullest sense of the word, each and every one of them our living brothers and sisters. We are all of us the children of this fertile, nourishing, generous, and life-giving Earth, but many human beings have forgotten this important truth in their myopic and narcissistic pursuit of false, base, and worthless human ends, including wealth, glory, fame, dominion, amusement, immortality, hedonistic pleasure, and transient power, whether over Nature, other people, or other living organisms.

For those who are able to understand it, it is this profound and vitally important lesson that is to be learned from the writings and teachings of the wise and simple farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka.

[1] The Wartime Kitchen and Garden by Jennifer Davies, p. 132. BBC Books, London, 1993.

[2] Although some people advocate regular burning as a beneficial practice, when a plant or animal is burned, all the chemical energy that was laboriously produced by the plant from sunlight, or by the plants that were consumed by the dead animal, is lost. It is this energy that is liberated as heat energy in the process of burning. Moreover, decomposed organic matter has other beneficial properties besides providing nutrients to plants’ roots: it lightens heavy, clayish soils, adds structure to sandy soils, and improves the ability of both types of soil to retain moisture, all of which beneficial properties are lost when it is reduced to ash after being burned.

[3] In fact, the digestive systems of large animals are quite inefficient. This is another example of the many symbiotic relationships that exist in Nature, for by leaving a large quantity of readily-absorbed nutrients in their feces, animals in turn aid the growth of those plants from which they derive their sustenance. Another fact about feces is that it only becomes a source of pestilence when the concentration of animals is stationary and becomes too numerous. This is one reason why, in the past, many human populations were migratory, a beneficial social behaviour that is still practised by many large herbivore populations in the wild, which regularly move from place to place as they exhaust the vegetation in an area. This regular movement allows the vegetation to regenerate while providing it with natural fertilizer in the form of feces.