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[Newsletter] May, 2006
Japan for Sustainability Newsletter #045
Japanese Farmer-Philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka: Natural Farming Greening
A farming method called 'natural farming' needs no tilling, no
fertilizers, no pesticides, and no weeding. For about 60 years, Masanobu
Fukuoka, Japan's renowned authority on natural farming, worked on
methods based on his own unique theories, insights and philosophy. His
seminal book, "One-Straw Revolution," first published in 1975, was later
translated into English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and other
languages, and has been read around the world. The book addresses not
only the practical aspects of natural farming but also the root causes
of environmental deterioration. Fukuoka's thoughts and philosophies have
inspired many people worldwide by pointing out a way of life. Here we
introduce his thought and practices.
Fukuoka was born in 1913 in Iyo, Ehime Prefecture, on a southern island
of Japan. After graduating from an agricultural high school, he took a
job at the Yokohama Customs Office. At the age of 25, however, he caught
acute pneumonia and was hospitalized. Those days spent alone became a
turning point in his life. Even after leaving the hospital, he continued
to agonize in his mind about matters of life and death. After spending
many days in emotional hardship, one morning, a flash of insight came to
him: "There is nothing in this world. No matter what humans try to do,
they can never achieve anything. Every thought we have and every action
we take is unnecessary." This was the birth of Fukuoka's philosophy,
"the theory of uselessness of human knowledge," or the theory of "mu"
To demonstrate his theories in some concrete and practical way, he
decided in 1937 to return to his native village and become a farmer at
his father's orange orchard. In 1939, when Japan's situation in World
War II began to deteriorate, he started to work at an agricultural
research station in Kochi Prefecture as an instructor and researcher of
scientific farming, and continued there until the end of the war. He
returned to Iyo in 1947, and thereafter continued to work on his unique
natural farming system.
When he visited America in 1979 and saw California's desertified land,
the thought occurred to him that his natural farming method would work
to green these regions. Visiting American communities working on natural
farming, he kept telling people that modern large-scale farming and
cattle-raising were causing desertification. During one of these
speaking tours, the head of the United Nations department in charge of
combating desertification asked him for technical advice. This was the
starting point of Fukuoka's initiative for desert greening all over the
globe: in China, India, the Americas, and Africa.
In 1988 Fukuoka received the Deshikottam Award, India's most prestigious
award, and the Philippines' Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service,
recognized as Asia's Nobel prize. In 1997 he received the Earth Council
Award, which honors politicians, businesspersons, scholars, and
non-governmental organizations for their contributions to sustainable
development. Today, the 93-year-old Fukuoka has retired from the
greening movement, and lives a quiet life in his home village, Iyo. His
fields are now closed to the public.
Natural Farming Based on Spiritual Philosophy
Fukuoka's natural farming method begins with the absolute rejection of
science. He says in one of his books, "My study started off with the
rejection of conventional agricultural technologies. I absolutely reject
science and technology. My view is based on the rejection of Western
philosophy, which supports today's science and technology."
He continues, "Natural farming, in my mind is, in fact, not part of
so-called scientific agriculture. I aim to establish a new farming
method from the view point of Oriental philosophy, thought, and
religion, standing away from the framework of scientific agriculture."
He values not the Western way of thinking, that nature is for the use of
humanity, but the Oriental thinking that we are part of nature. Through
natural "do-nothing" farming he tried to demonstrate that humanity's
science is imperfect and unnecessary.
In another book, "The Road Back to Nature," Fukuoka notes, "Dietary
abnormality results in abnormality of the body and mind, and affects
everything. A sound body comes from healthy food. A sound idea comes
from a healthy body." He considers food the most significant factor for
human life, and he repeatedly uses the Taoist or Buddhist term
"shindo-fuji" in his books, which literally means that body (shin) and
earth (do) are inseparable (fuji). He says that humans and the
environment are united. When people eat food in season and grown on the
very land where they live, their bodies can be sound and in harmony with
Fukuoka's Natural Farming
Currently, most farmers in Japan practice chemical farming with chemical
fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Recently, however, as people are
paying more and more attention to food safety, an increasing number of
farmers practice sustainable agriculture, through reduction of
herbicides and pesticides and/or through the use of organic fertilizers.
At supermarkets and retail stores, consumers are able to buy
agricultural products bearing the Organic JAS logo, issued by the
Japanese Agricultural Standard to certify that food has been produced in
accordance with international guidelines. The JAS certification is given
to the agricultural products from farms which had not used agrichemicals
and chemical fertilizers for more than three years, in principle, but
applies organic materials such as manure.
How about Fukuoka's natural farming? Is it just one type of organic
farming? Fukuoka rejects scientific farming based on human knowledge
and, instead, has established a farming method that requires as little
human intervention as possible. Organic farming, in which people spread
organic fertilizers, is different from what he has been aspiring to
Fukuoka explains natural farming in his writings: "We can make healthy
rice, healthy and rich soil that requires no fertilizer, and have
productive soil without tilling if we just accept the fact that such
excessive efforts-tilling, application of either organic, chemical
fertilizers, or pesticides-has never been necessary A farming method
that develops the conditions under which people do not have to do
anything--this is what I have been pursuing. After thirty years I
finally came to the point where my natural farm could yield, without any
effort, virtually as much rice and wheat as typical scientific farms."
JFS interviewed Muneo Matsumoto, who has been attempting Fukuoka-style
natural farming in Saitama Prefecture, in the suburbs of Tokyo.
According to him, a few farmers are now practicing what they claim to be
"natural farming" across Japan. But the name "natural farming" does not
necessarily mean the same thing, because there is no set definition and
each person is trying in his own way. Many of them, however, once
learned natural farming from Fukuoka and have adapted it to their
circumstances. Fukuoka's natural farming could be described as the
prototype, or at least one of the sources of a stream.
The principles of Fukuoka-style natural farming are no
tilling(cultivation), no fertilizers, no pesticides, and no weeding.
Although "no tilling" may be a difficult concept for regular farmers to
understand, the rationale is clear to Matsumoto. "Tilled soil easily
dries out." He continues that. the application of fertilizers, including
manure, will overprotect plants, by contrast, the plants without
fertilizer can grow to be robust and tasty. Regarding the principle of
no weeding, he cuts weeds when they bloom, instead of pulling them out.
And the mowed weeds are laid flat on the ground to keep soil moist in
summer and warm in winter; in the end they decompose into natural
Moreover, Matsumoto rarely waters the plants so that the roots search
for water and stretch deep. If water is abundant, he says, plants will
have shallow roots and become weak from getting water too easily.
When seeding, Matsumoto scatters a mixture of seeds. A plant sprouts
only when it best suits the place, and thus he cannot anticipate in
advance what will grow where. To those who do not know better,
Fukuoka-style natural farms may appear to be untended, with plants
growing randomly. Neighbors often despise such farms, thinking that they
look disorderly. In this country, where most farms have vegetables
growing in neat rows, natural farming may be hard to understand for most
An agricultural method that requires no tilling, no fertilizers, no
pesticides and no weeding sounds very easy to do. But in reality it is
not. In his books Fukuoka stressed repeatedly that the "natural" in
natural farming is different from noninterference. Matsumoto elaborates:
"Nature without human intervention just follows its course
automatically. However, nature once tampered with by humans will not
return easily to its original condition without human intervention."
Restoration of the original natural conditions is rather difficult to
accomplish and certainly requires expertise. Fukuoka was able to
establish his natural farming method only through repeated attempts and
errors to return his own farming fields to the natural condition.
The rapidly growing demand for petroleum in recent years is causing
conflicts all over the world. In chemical-based agriculture, petroleum
is not just the material used to make fertilizers and pesticides but
also the fuel to power cultivation machinery. In contrast, natural
agriculture does not require cultivators, fertilizers or pesticides.
Since it does not depend on petroleum, it is really a more sustainable
form of agriculture.
Greening of Deserts with Clay Balls
Fukuoka's natural rice farming method is a "no-tilling, direct sowing,
rice-barley double cropping" system in which rice and barley grow in the
same field alternately in a year, from seeds sown on non-tilled fields.
Knowing that bare seeds tend to be eaten by birds, Fukuoka came up with
the idea of inserting seeds into clay pellets before sowing them on
fields. In general, such clayballs are made by (1) mixing clay, water
and various kinds of seeds, (2) removing air bubbles from the mixture as
much as possible, (3) forming small, round balls, and (4) drying them
for 3 or 4 days.
Clay-coated seeds are prevented from being eaten by birds or insects and
also from drying up. The globular shape of these clay pellets makes them
hard to break. Clayballs contact the ground with a small area where dew
is formed due to differences daytime and nighttime temperatures, which
facilitates the rooting of seeds.
Clayballs are which require no watering or no fertilizers, are
especially suited for sowing in deserts since they require no watering
or fertilizers in addition to their low-cost nature. Fukuoka called for
people to collect seeds, launched a movement for desert-greening with
clayballs, and succeeded in greening activities in Greece, India,
Tanzania, the Philippines, and worldwide. Although Fukuoka is now
retired from the movement, activities initiated by him are continuing in
It takes years before the deserts can be transformed into green areas
filled with germinating seeds, small plants, vegetables and trees. In
other words, it is rather easy to destroy nature, but restoring nature
once lost takes a tremendous amount of time and energy.
Bringing Nature Back Into Our Lives
After the World War II, Japan has been expanding its economy, and grown
to be a country that imports materials from all over the world. Even the
food which is essential for our survival comes from as far away as the
other side of the planet. But through this change, Japan has achieved
material affluence. On the other hand, agriculture is now largely
detached from the lives of most people in this highly technological
Humanity cannot live without nature. The farmer-philosopher Fukuoka has
shown us that natural agriculture allows us to live without the aid of
technology. We should always remember that it is nature that sustains
our lives. Scattering seeds to bring back nature and agriculture close
to our daily lives may certainly be one step toward a sustainable
(Staff writer Yuriko Yoneda)
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