I work somewhat related to plant breeding and farming so I'm always interested to read something from someone who has something different to say. Sadly (and this is getting more and more common with 'alternative' farming) that different thing often doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny, as it does here.
Fukuoka advocates his idea of natural farming (important his distinction: it's not 'abandonment' farming, it does require work), summarised in 5 points: no cultivation, no chemical fertilizer or prepared compost, no weeding by tillage or herbicides, and no dependence on chemicals. He says that it's better than what other Japanese farmers are doing, he has to do less work and gets the same yield. Now he doesn't say what farmers in his area are getting, but we can do the math!
Here's what he's getting:
Mr. Fukuoka harvests between 18 and 22 bushels (1,100 to 1,300 pounds) of rice per quarter acre. This yield is approximately the same as is produced by either the chemical or the traditional method in his area.
In normal terms that's 1300 * 4 = 5200 pounds per acre, or better 2.3 tons per acre of yield. This page says Japan always had on average 5-6 tons per hectar since the 60s
. We have to convert from acre to hectar, one acre is 0.4 hectar, so we have to multiply by 2.5 (1/0.4=2.5), so he gets a maximum of 2.3*2.5=5.75 t/hectar, that's comparable to what the rest of Japan is getting!
But is it a useful method? The book is nearly 30 years old yet nobody seems to have taken up his methods. I can't tell how it would fare in Australia, where the climate is much more extreme and unpredictable. Some of the things he advises are already common - Europe has been seeding clover for nitrogen replenishment for about 150 years, not sure whether Japan does that.
What's more aggravating is that a lot of this book is plain wrong, examples:
Trees weaken and are attacked by insects to the extent that they deviate from the natural form.
What is this 'natural' form? Why would insects know about this natural form?
Or this one, annoying because Fukuoka had scientific training:
And the scientists, no matter how much they investigate nature, no matter how far they research, they only come to realize in the end how perfect and mysterious nature really is. To believe that by research and invention humanity can create something better than nature is an illusion.
No plant breeder is trying to make 'better than nature' - nature does not have as its goal to give more food to humans, nature has no goals. We humans are taking plants and changing them to our ends, as we've done for thousands of years. They are not 'better' plants since there is no system of judgement. We know that each change in the plant has downsides somewhere else: a plant that has introgressed resistance genes to resist a certain fungus will have a lower yield than plants without that gene at times when the fungus is not present, since the plant will always waste resources on the resistance, resources it could use to produce more seeds. It annoys me when the research gets misrepresented like that.
You hear a lot of talk these days about the benefits of the "Good Rice Movement" and the "Green Revolution." Because these methods depend on weak, "improved" seed varieties, it becomes necessary for the farmer to apply chemicals and insecticides eight or ten times during the growing season.
Where does this number of 'eight or ten times' come from? The whole point of new plant varities is that you have to use less pesticides! Why are new seed varieties 'weak'? He does not say. It's like saying that new cars are bad because they use more gasoline - it's simply the opposite.
Foods that have departed far from their wild state and those raised chemically or in a completely contrived environment unbalance the body chemistry.
This is a common argument in some areas of the organic world. We now know that there is no 'wild state' of bread wheat or rapeseed, they are plants created by humans by merging the genomes of other plants. As such, they do not have a wild state, yet here we are eating them. The plants we eat and did not create look nothing like their wild relatives - a wild banana is practically inedible as it's mostly seeds:
Does eating a modern banana 'unbalance' the body chemistry? What does that even mean, what exactly gets unbalanced? It's a waffle term.
or this one:
It is said that Einstein was given the Nobel Prize in physics in deference to the incomprehensibility of his theory of relativity. If his theory had explained clearly the phenomenon of relativity in the world and thus released humanity from the confines of time and space, bringing about a more pleasant and peaceful world, it would have been commendable. His explanation is bewildering, however, and it caused people to think that the world is complex beyond all possible understanding. A citation for "disturbing the peace of the human spirit" should have been awarded instead.
Einstein did not get the Nobel Prize for the theory of relativity, he got the Nobel Prize for his work on the photoelectric effect
, something rather different (and definitely not as weird as his theories of relativity!).
In this book, one of the main themes is that humans cannot and will not understand reality, so it's better to leave nature alone and let it stay 'natural' (whatever that term means). Should we as humans just leave the plants alone, and hope that it'll all be right? Take a look at this graph:Source
This shows the trajectory of current and expected yield in the solid dots and the straight lines after 2010. The dashed line in the gray area shows the yield growth we actually
need to feed a growing human population. In other words, we need to roughly double yield growth in most plants, mankind's growth is outpacing the growth of our plants.
That is the scariest graph we have in my field, and it doesn't even account for yield losses due to climate change (more extreme weather changes, more extreme weather events etc, (but it also doesn't account for positive changes - less reliance on meat would free up quite a lot of water and grains).
Enough bashing of the book - what saves it is the Zen component, because that's actually interesting.
It is nothing you can really talk about, but it might be put something like this: "Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort." This may seem preposterous, but if you put it into words, that is the only way to describe it.
His description of Ego Death is interesting and fits to what's described in other places (The Conspiracy Against The Human Race has a great section on ego death!). But then again, this does not appear all too often, the majority of the book focuses on farming.
I really don't know who this book is for. The farming stuff is too specific to a certain environment and preaches too much to the choir, and for the Zen stuff it's probably better to get a book that focuses only on Zen (like Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind from Shunryu Suzuki).