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Masanobu Fukuoka Sowing seeds in the desertRe-seeding the desert that capitalism creates

Halting the advance of social and economic wastelands created by Wall Street or those caused by industrialised farming, requires a rebalancing of the relationship between humans and nature.

Review by Susan Jappie

The Japanese author of this amazing book illustrates his revolutionary approach using ink brush drawings as well as written images like “Capitalism, the money-sucking octopus”.

Fukuoka looks for a way forward at this time of social and ecological crises by providing practical solutions based on a renewed understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. He does this by combining a philosophical approach with a lifetime’s experience as a farmer experimenting with new methods on his own farm and in projects from India and Africa to Europe and the USA.

The translator, a former student on Fukuoka’s farm, admits to the challenge in presenting the ideas in a way that Western readers can follow, but makes a good job of it including comments by supporters of his ideas such as Vandana Shiva who says “all humanity has to learn to sow seeds in the desert, whether it is an economic desert created by Wall Street or an ecological desert created by globalized corporate agriculture”.

Fukuoka grew up on a rice-growing farm on the island of Shikoku and studied plant pathology at university before returning to work there; but after an experience of enlightenment, he decided to experiment with methods that drew upon the natural interaction between the ecosystem’s micro-organisms in the soil and the diversity of insects and plants that grew when weeding, ploughing and even paddy field watering were put aside.  After 25 years his farm was as productive as those using conventional methods, and he attracted students from around the world.

He published an international best seller in 1979 called The One-Straw Revolution, explaining his concern about the unsustainability of industrial agriculture, based as it was on petroleum products for the machinery and fertilisers necessary as the soil lost its natural resilience. He pointed out the increasing inefficiency of these methods, demonstrated by the decreasing ratio between calories produced to those invested, from 2:1 to 1:2. Moreover, the pollution from modern ‘scientific’ quick fixes was having a devastating effect upon the Earth, which could only be ‘healed’ by a paradigm-shift in humans’ relationship with the natural world.

Fukuoka throwing a seedball at a 2002
workshop run by Navdanya, the
Indian seed saving organization

Fukuoka studied the global desertification which is happening from Europe and the USA, where the ‘wrong’ farming methods have depleted the soil; to the rapid deforestation in Africa and Asia as well as the Amazon, causing loss of rainfall and oxygen. The greed of multi-national corporations for timber and plantation owners growing monoculture crops for export, has also caused a social desertification by pushing poor farmers out of their rural communities into city slums.

He sees the materialist culture and ‘scientific’ knowledge leading to wastelands of the Earth and human heart, and suggests that we need a change of approach based on intuition and an understanding of the interaction of all parts of the ecosystem. When scientists see desertification, they try to treat the symptoms and make it worse, rather than the underlying causes. Fukuoka challenges the ‘scientific’ way of thinking, which leaves out the imagination and intuition that can reveal interconnections.

Over the last thirty years 30 years he has travelled around the world setting up projects to counter desertification, including using former military aircraft to drop clay pelleted seeds of a diverse range of plants to re-vegetate the earth!

In Bengal he re-seeded a mangrove area at the mouth of the Ganges and gave out seeds to refugee children in Somalia, revisiting these places later to see the results.

Fukuoka was invited to speak at the universities of California, Oregon and Washington where ideas of ‘permaculture’ were taking root. On his return to the American west seven years later he saw a revolution in consciousness in the urban areas where ‘natural farms’ are springing up, where lawns were being replaced with mixed fruit and nut trees and chickens run around fertilizing the vegetables! But in the rural areas of America the mind-set is slower to change.

Fukuoka found his closest empathy with a Yurok indigenous leader, from the Klamath region in Northern California, who not only shared his philosophy and vision of the new relationship between humans and the natural world, but also came from an area where redwood trees and their accompanying eco-systems flourished as they had done in Japan long ago!

Fukuoka and his followers have built up seed banks of diverse plants from across the world and in the appendices there is a section showing how to use them to revitalise the Earth, so readers can participate in his work too.

7 January 2013

Sowing seeds in the desert: natural farming, global restoration and ultimate food security by Masanobu Fukuoka, Chelsea Green Publishing, £18.95 or as an e-book in a range of formats. The book is available in the UK and Europe through Green Books.

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