Revisiting Masanobu Fukuoka’s Revolutionary Agriculture
I believe that a revolution can begin from this one strand of straw. Seen at a glance, this rice straw may appear light and insignificant. Hardly anyone would believe that it could start a revolution. But I have come to realize the weight and power of this straw. For me, this revolution is very real.
— Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution (1)
Under the guidance of Patrap C. Aggarwhal, the Friends’ Rural Centre (FRC) in India, part of a nationwide network of rural development co-operatives established over a century ago to support rural communities in a variety of ways, had experimented with revolutionary farming methods for approximately five years before their discovery of Fukuoka’s landmark work in 1983. Located outside Hoshangabad in Rasulia, Madhya Pradesh, for much of its long history the FRC had survived thanks to funding from abroad. By 1987, however, and for the first time in a century, the FRC was able to claim its independence from foreign aid. Consistently high levels of productivity coupled with drastic cuts in operating costs made for a decidedly viable concern. This, as Aggarwhal emphatically asserts, became possible as a direct result of implementing rishi kheti, or ‘natural farming of the sages’, as he dubbed the natural farming methods first reintroduced by Masanobu Fukuoka. “We practised rishi kheti at Rasulia for about eight years,” he writes. “I can state with full confidence that the community gained in every conceivable way.” (2)
Eliminating chemical fertilizers, diversifying cropping patterns, using onions, garlic, neem, marigold and other flowering plants as insect repellants, as well as a range of other plants to attract different kinds of insects that would keep each other in check — all these were well-established methods at Rasulia by the time Mr Aggarwhal sat down under a tree of his own and received an enlightenment of sorts from a little book that had just arrived through the post. The expression ‘revolutionary agriculture’ is used advisedly: as we shall see, the broader aims of the Rasulia community were far from bucolic. Radical as their methods were, however, Aggarwhal and his associates were dissatisfied with what they had hitherto achieved. They wanted to make a definitive break with an old way of doing things that would entirely revolutionize their relationship with the earth. They were seeking, in Aggarwhal’s own words, “a whole new way of life which would bring us in harmony with the environment, life, people, ourselves.” (3) Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution offered precisely the kind of inspiration they sought, and the level of success they achieved in their local revolution has far-reaching practical and symbolic implications. On the assumption that some lessons bear frequent reiteration, my purpose in this and following articles will be to re-explore Fukuoka’s seminal pages and attempt an organic re-reading of their message.
Aggarwhal states the revolutionary claims of the Rasulia community in his Preface to the 2009 Other India Press edition of Fukuoka’s book in unequivocal terms:
We too saw revolution in a straw. We did believe that if only a fraction of ordinary Indian farmers could adopt rishi kheti they could bring down the agro-business establishment, the government, and with it the entire urban-industrial structures of the country. Perhaps the straw had the same kind of power as Gandhi’s charkha.
— Patrap C. Aggarwhal, ‘Preface’ (4)
Likening Fukuoka’s straw to Gandhi’s loom, and the wheel of life which is the central symbol on India’s national flag, is no poetic license on Aggarwhal’s part: evoking the persuasive force of such a vital symbol is in fact a very bold statement indeed. To what extent farming communities in India have succeeded in safeguarding, or reclaiming where necessary, their self-sufficiency and their traditional stewardship of the earth as a direct result of adopting rishi kheti; and to what extent the urban-industrial complex has so far been weakened by what is in fact a growing global rejection of corporate methods, interests, and governance at every level, is beyond my competence to judge. With over 830 million people in India living in rural areas (5), and agriculture still accounting for well over 15 percent of GDP and about half of India’s workforce (6), it is easy to see that the challenge remains a potent one. But as the barycentre of economic growth shifts to urban areas, in India, like elsewhere, agriculture is on the decline, and a new order of questions is becoming increasingly relevant. For instance, what is the future role of agriculture in the global economy? And, more importantly for the present context, to what extent will the idea of ‘stewardship of the earth’ continue to be tied to the economics of food production? Nonetheless, it still seems safe to assert that the symbolic significance of the achievements at Rasulia remain relevant, and in fact continue to grow in direct proportion to the deepening of the economic and environmental crisis that is unfolding before us. That is to say, the worse things get, the greater the need for radical measures such as those advocated by Fukuoka, and the more radical such measures need to be.
Fukuoka’s fundamental precepts of no tillage, no weeding, no pesticides, no fertilizing, and no pruning cut to the heart of traditional farming. Not only do they require expertise and sensitivity in the observation of the local eco-system, the selection of native plant-types, and a knowledge of how best to support and encourage naturally-occurring processes in the soil, they also require a fundamental paradigm-shift in the way we view ourselves in relation to the environment. To paraphrase Larry Korn’s succinct analysis of the different effects of chemical, traditional, and natural farming on the soil in the ‘Introduction’ to the same volume, we can say that in the chemical-based paradigm of modern agriculture that emerged after WWII, the earth is seen as a passive resource to be exploited by scientific means for the highest possible yield, and therefore profit. Any intrinsic ‘deficiencies’ in the soil are corrected and pests are controlled by chemical means. In this view, the depletion of the soil and the erosion of the land, when they are acknowledged at all, are seen as necessary evils. The impact of organic farming, on the other hand, is far gentler in that human interference with natural processes is mitigated by the use of eco-friendly fertilizers and methods that are far less aggressive. In this paradigm, so-called ‘Nature’ is viewed as something like a friend needing guidance by non-harmful means. In the natural-farming paradigm, however, humanity simply relinquishes all control of the growing process and adopts ‘Nature’ as a teacher, observing its intrinsic patterns and working simply to support the growth of earth-nourishing plants and life-sustaining fruit and vegetables. Interference in the inner processes of the life-cycle of plants is eschewed altogether, as ‘Nature’ is left to get on with what it does best.
The magic of natural farming is best illustrated in Korn’s own words:
All three methods (natural, traditional, and chemical) yield comparable harvests, but differ markedly in their effect on the soil. The soil in Mr. Fukuoka’s fields improves with each season. Over the past twenty-five years, since he stopped plowing, his fields have improved in fertility, structure, and their ability to retain water. By the traditional method the condition of the soil over the years remains about the same. The farmer takes yields in direct proportion to the amount of compost and manure he puts in. The soil in the fields of the chemical farmer becomes lifeless and depleted of its native fertility in a short time.
— Larry Korn, ‘Introduction’ (7)
The significance of this cannot be overstated. That humankind has entered a lethal downward spiral in its relationship with the environment is no longer a matter of debate: it is consolidated fact. It therefore follows that we have no choice but to reverse the trend by changing the part of the equation that pertains to us. That the ‘soft’ approach of the organic paradigm is not sufficient to address the challenges we face is equally certain, not to mention the fact that ‘going organic’ seems increasingly to be a matter of conscience rather than consciousness, a response to a manufactured sense of guilt rather than the obvious thing to do. How often, when shopping in an organic shop or supermarket, are we not aware of a nagging sense of ‘compromise’? The sense that this may be better than the traditional supermarket, but it is clearly not going to solve the problem? In other words that yoking the salvation of the eco-system to the logic of profit simply may not be radical enough?
A clear reversal of the trend can only imply that our labour actually improves the health of the system we work in. The idea is simple enough to think about, but its implementation is problematic. For countless generations, farmers in Rasulia and elsewhere have relied upon ploughing as an inalienable feature of farming, and the idea of abandoning it is practically unimaginable. The plough is so fundamental to traditional farming that we may — in this case with some poetic license — see it as standing in symbolic antithesis to Fukuoka’s strand of straw. It represents the farmer’s tie to an unnecessarily labour-intensive and generally harmful model of agriculture which, with today’s technological advancements, is depleting vast areas of farmland at an alarming rate. Yet abandon it they did. As Aggarwhal points out elsewhere, “our farmers cannot read books, but two things they can judge are good soil and healthy crops. They can also make basic economic calculations.” (8) Improving soil, better yields for most crops, greatly reduced expenditure in terms of fuel, maintenance, labour, and veterinary fees, not to mention independence from the fluctuations of a food market that is entirely subservient to the petro-chemical industry, are results that speak for themselves. With new forms of growth affecting increasingly large numbers of the world’s population, it seems pertinent to call into question the role of agriculture in addressing our environmental concerns. But there can be no doubt that there is a powerful connection between how we produce, distribute, and consume food, and the culture that goes with it, and the health of our eco-system as a whole, and that traditional farmers as a class (as opposed to modern industrial farmers) remain the best placed to implement the right measures on something like the scale that is needed.
- Fukuoka, M., The One-Straw Revolution (Other India Press: Goa, 2009), p. 1. With over a million copies sold and translations in 25 different languages, the popularity of Fukuoka’s book is a hopeful story in its own right. First published in 1975 with the title Shizen Noho Wara Ippon No Kakumei, its collaborative English translation, started in 1976 by Fukuoka’s ‘students on the mountain’ Chris Pearce, Tsune Kurosawa, and Larry Korn, includes passages from other works by and conversations with Fukuoka.
- ‘Preface’, ibid., p. xvi
- ‘Preface’, ibid., p. xv.
- ‘Preface’, ibid., p. xv.
- ‘Introduction’, ibid., p. xxviii.