Fukuoka Masanobu was a thinker rather than a farmer. Denying human knowledge, Fukuoka states that all artifice is useless. His writing may suggest that he was a very cynical thinker, but Fukuoka’s ideas pose a single, deep-rooted question; one that humanity has faced ever since the dawn of civilization.
The words of Jesus about “Taking no thought for the morrow” appear in the Bible in Matthew’s Gospel – “Take therefore no thought of the morrow: sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. Jesus said stop worrying about tomorrow, live life to the full today.
Buddha speaks of attachment to life being the source of all suffering. Everything in this world is emptiness, he goes on, but people suffer because they are attached to this emptiness. Lao-tzu, who denied the intellect and idealized non-doing and being natural, essentially says the same.
Whether it’s worrying about the future, or attachment to life, it all springs from the mind. People try to satisfy their desires using their minds. But desire has no limits. Satisfy one desire and the next desire arises.
By repeating this again and again, people have built up civilizations. The history of civilizations is the history of the growth of human desires.
Zeus punished Prometheus, the giver of fire to mankind, by having him chained to a rock where a great eagle ate his liver. Prometheus, being a Titan, was immortal, and his liver regenerated the following morning. As he couldn’t die, it meant Prometheus was destined to live forever and endure the pain of his innards being eaten. This cruel punishment can also be seen as symbolizing the equally cruel truth that however far civilization is advanced, it will never attain happiness. Because if the history of the advance of civilization is the history of the burgeoning of desire, then civilization will never bring real happiness to people. And if that is the case, then what on earth is the significance of human knowledge and the achievements based on that knowledge?
Since the dawn of civilization people have, somewhere in their hearts, pondered this mystery. Lao Tzu’s doctrine of non-doing, of being natural, is the polar opposite of civilization. If civilization aims to make people happy by satisfying their desires, there may be a different way to happiness. Denying civilization and living naturally. It is, as the Buddha said, knowing that desires are nothing more than illusion, and, as Christ said, not dwelling on tomorrow, but living in the moment, in a spirit of gratitude for all things.
From the point of view of civilization, this is perhaps where the real function of religion lies. Putting aside the question of faith for a moment, belief in a god or Buddha is ultimately just a means. Their real point is surely to question the aims of civilization, and possibly deny desire.
Fukuoka’s ideas about denying knowledge and the uselessness of human endeavour are in the same vein. What is unique about him is not that he perfected them in a single philosophy or system of thought. He demonstrated them through his farming. He may have denied the natural sciences, but his own teachings have everything to do with an intuitive understanding of them.
Born in Iyo City in Ehime Prefecture in 1913, Fukuoka Masanobu studied at the Gifu Agricultural and Forestry College (now the Gifu University of Faculty of Applied Biological Sciences Graduate School of Agriculture), then got a job researching plant diseases in the Plant Quarantine Section at Yokohama Customs. Whilst he was researching gummosis in satsuma orange trees under the guidance of Eiichi Kurosawa, the world famous plant disease scientist who succeeded in isolating gibberellins from fungal strains in rice, Fukuoka eventually reached the view that ‘All Human Knowledge and Endeavour is a Waste’. Then, during the war, whilst teaching so-called scientific farming methods at the Kochi Prefectural Agricultural Experiment Station, he looked at the same time for a way to farm which was not based on human knowledge. Later, in 1947, he returned and spent the rest of his life farming in his native countryside.
He aspired to ‘do-nothing’ farming. He tried to demonstrate in farming, the field he understood better than anything, the fact that human knowledge and endeavour were pointless. Nature, he says, is a perfect system.
With no help from anyone, the leaves flourish on the trees, flowers bloom, and seeds are scattered. According to Fukuoka, agriculture is what we call it once we tamper with the system, and what we do is aimed at getting results that will serve humans. Spread fertilizer and you’ll get bigger fruit. If you kill insects, you’ll harvest more produce. This is the way humans think. Using our ingenuity in spreading fertilizer, we have at the same time improved pest extermination techniques.
As a consequence of all this, crops are closer to petroleum products than the fruits of nature. Agriculture today is no longer possible without the input of huge quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of agricultural machinery. What on earth is going to happen when fossil fuels run out?
Not only did Fukuoka believe that human knowledge and endeavour are pointless, but that they are manifestly harmful. Unless the ‘do-nothing’ farming ideals he aspired to could be shown to be superior to modern agriculture, however, they would be nothing more than empty theories. The fact remains that, whether the products are petroleum or something else, food grown today sustains a huge world population.
In his book, Fukuoka reflects on how, in the beginning, he set out to literally practice do-nothing farming. He took over his father’s satsuma orange orchards at home and didn’t prune or do anything else to them. As a result, the branches went all over the place, insects increased, and the satsuma orange trees withered. Orchards made by man are far from natural.
Animals raised in a zoo cannot be released into the wild. The same goes for trees in orchards; they cannot be simply returned to nature. This applies to rice paddies and fields, not just orchards.
‘Do-nothing’ farming is farming which relies 100% on a natural system which is completely self-sustaining. Such a natural system requires processes to which we can entrust the agricultural produce we are used to growing. Realizing this, the thing which Fukuoka perfected over the course of forty years was the natural method of farming he advocated. Fukuoka says it was a matter of trial and error based on the idea ‘What would it be OK not to do?’ The direction civilization has grown in is based on the principle of addition, always adding things. He aspired to his ultimate ideal of do-nothing farming through the opposite – repeatedly subtracting.
The continuous no-ploughing, direct sowing method of growing rice and barley Fukuoka perfected through trial and error was described in the book which Kimura had accidentally come across. To put it very simply, the farming method amounts to nothing more than sowing rice, barley, and clover seeds, then cutting the rice and barley when it has grown and leaving the straw strewn around the fields. Fukuoka writes that he used these methods for more than thirty years, increasing his crop yields to levels similar to modern agriculture which relies on agrichemicals. It seems an almost unbelievable story.
Without ploughing there’ll be no rice planting. If neither pesticides nor fertilizer are necessary, what are the world’s farmers actually slaving away at?
Not only that. Kimura was one farmer making a living this way. What Fukuoka wrote in his book was not something he could believe intellectually. There is a big difference in climate between Ehime Prefecture, where it’s possible to double crop rice and barley, and Aomori Prefecture, which is buried under snow in the winter. Implementing Fukuoka’s farming methods per se was not an option.
Nevertheless, Kimura found himself having to read the book over and over again. The more he read Fukuoka’s book, the more one thought stayed in his mind. It was something which had never occurred to him whilst he was growing apples, covered in pesticides. To grow apples, he had been spraying a dozen or more times between early spring and the time before the harvest in September. The apple leaves were white with the stuff. This was because he believed that unless he did so, he couldn’t protect the apples from disease and insects. But was that actually true?