A few years ago, reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma flipped my world-view on its head. It showed me that many of the problems we face as a society (health and energy, notably) can be solved by more responsible agriculture. As that book began my path toward eating more naturally, The One-Straw Revolution (1978) hammered it home. If you care about food, farming, or achieving a sustainable society, it’s truly revolutionary.
Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a proponent of “do-nothing” farming. That’s a bit of a misnomer, as his methods still involve lots of work, but he certainly did a lot less than the average farmer. Distilled, his philosophy is: let plants grow as they do in nature. He advocated four main principles:
- No cultivation. This means no tilling or disturbing the natural structure of the soil.
- No prepared compost or chemical fertilizer. This comes with a few qualifications, but essentially it’s: keep the level of fertilization in the soil balanced.
- No weeding by tilling or herbicides. “Weeds play their part in building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community.” Though he does admit that weeds should be controlled through other means – ground cover, mostly.
- No dependance on chemicals. Duh.
So some of his ideas are radical even for the crunchiest of alternative farms. After having seen the beautiful vegetables that thoughtfully prepared compost produces, I’m having trouble reconciling the idea of giving up that black gold. But his explanation makes sense: when you add or subtract anything from soil, you’re upsetting the natural balance. Weeds will grow better in compost too!
The book is mainly about food and farming, but delves into some interesting facets of his own brand of eastern philosophy. Some tasty nuggets:
I do not like the word “work.” Human beings are the only animals that have to work, and I think this is the most ridiculous thing in the world. Other animals make their livings by living, but people work like crazy, thinking that they have to in order to stay alive. The bigger the job, the greater the challenge, the more wonderful they think it is.
High five, Fukuoka-san! I can certainly get on board that train.
Of course, the “food mandala” above will vary based on where you are in the world, and I’m sure you’ve heard the “eat seasonally” refrain, but boy-howdy does it help to see it laid out like this. The meals practically jump off the page, don’t they? I’ll take some of this, with a little of that, and voilá! Here’s a balanced, seasonal, and healthy meal. I’ll pass on the pig fish though.
By realizing “no-mind” without becoming lost in the subtleties of form, accepting the color of the colorless as color, right diet begins.
Ok, that one is a little kooky, but I included it to give you an idea of what you’re in for. Most of the book is totally normal, practical advice and evidence about farming, but at the end he goes off the rails a bit, getting occasionally touchy-feely and frequently soup-spoon obtuse. I didn’t want you to read through the book and think I was about to join a commune in Nepal. Fear not, I still wear nylon.
So this is all very nice, but hardly revolutionary. Well, the best is yet to come. You’ve heard the old adage: “you can have it cheap, good, or fast: pick two.” The same applies to local, organic, and cheap, but you’re usually allowed only one. Imagine if you could have all three! It would absolutely be revolutionary, as Fukuoka insists.
But, how? He contends that because his principles are easier and cheaper than more intensive organic farming (remember, “do-nothing”), he can match or beat the prices of the good ole boys using nasty chemicals and petrol-guzzling combines. All of a sudden, we can have cheap, local and organic!
Nothing will change consumer’s habits faster than hitting them where they feel it most: the wallet. When the modern organic grower realizes this, they will truly have a toehold in the marketplace.
The One-Straw Revolution made me think long and hard about some principles I’d taken as fact and offered solutions to some major hurdles of modern organic agriculture. If you’re game for a similar adventure, pick up a copy today.