Learning from the Master
Some years ago, Rodale published a book called, “The One-Straw Revolution,” by a Japanese rice farmer named Masanobu Fukuoka. It seemed to me then, and still does now, to sum up something essential about the way organic food should be grown. I say “should be” because many organic farmers in the western world farm in ways similar to their conventional peers, except they dispense with the chemicals and use organic techniques. But the mindset is essentially the same: get out the tractor and plow, plant, weed, harvest, plow, etc.
Fukuoka-san, as I came to call him after I met him and absorbed what he had to teach, was different. He did not farm his rice like his neighbors. At the core of his method, which he invented over a lifetime of thought, trial and error, and a firm grounding in Buddhism, was a simple dictum. Instead of asking, “What can I do next to bring in a good crop of rice?”, he asked himself, “What can I stop doing and yet continue to bring in a good crop of rice?” In other words, he was doing what Henry David Thoreau recommended: simplify.
While his conventional neighbors plowed their fields with heavy equipment, used chemicals to weed and fertilize, killed pests with poisons, flooded their paddies and used tractor-driven, gas-guzzling planters to pop the young rice plants into the mud, Fukuoka-san took another route, and did none of those things.
In the fall, he scattered rice grains in his fields, as rice would fall naturally from plants in the wild. He also scattered white clover seeds. Clover adds nitrogen to the soil and improves its fertility, and the clover grew thickly over the winter in his mild-climate part of southern Japan, while the rice grains lay dormant. He scattered barley straw over the fields, as a mulch that kept down weeds. In the spring, he allowed water to flood the paddies. The water killed the clover, which, along with the barley straw, naturally decayed to enrich the soil as a form of green manure. The water also caused the rice seed to germinate, as it would naturally in the wild. And the rice grew to provide bountiful harvests.
That was it. No chemicals. No gasoline. No heavy machinery. Just three things to do: scatter seeds, scatter straw, flood paddies. The result? Soil that constantly improved year after year, and rice yields about equal to those of his conventional neighbors.
His whole idea was to take human interference with nature out of the equation and allow nature to do her thing. Understand the nature of rice, clover, straw, and flood water. With very little work, and with all labor by hand, he showed us the way to sustainable organic farming.
At the time Rodale published the book, I was working at the company as an editor on Organic Gardening magazine. Fukuoka-san was a sort of organic superstar then, and one day he stopped by our offices in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. I, and many of my colleagues there, was thrilled to meet him. He was a slender, intense-looking man with a twinkle in his eye yet a serious demeanor. He had a pad of paper, brushes, and ink with him and he painted an image for me that illustrated how his method worked. It showed a pit in the ground with a small figure wielding a pick in the bottom of the pit. Through a translator, he told me what his painting was about.
The man in the pit was like anyone who is trying to do something that nature doesn’t intend—he’s digging himself into a hole, and the harder he tries, the deeper the pit gets. What’s needed is for him to stop digging and turn his attention to getting out of the pit.
Today that painting is in my office here in California and it is a constant reminder to stop digging and start asking not what I can do next, but what I can stop doing.
There is a small soil-borne, single-celled bacterium scientists call Bacillus thuringiensis. It produces a protein within its cell that is toxic to insect larvae—that is, when insects are in their worm-like stage, which is also when they do the greatest damage to field crops.
Organic gardeners and farmers have used Bt, as it’s called for short, for years to control pests like European cabbage worm, corn rootworm, corn earworm, and other larvae that damage crops. It works like a disease, infecting the larvae and rendering their gut unable to process food, and so they die. It’s specific for insect larvae. No other creatures contract the disease. Organic growers used it only when pests became a real threat to a crop. It worked beautifully and safely as a spot treatment.
Then along came Monsanto and its genetic engineers, who said, “Gee, that Bt poison works great. Let’s find the gene in the bacterium that expresses it.” So they looked and found the gene. Then Monsanto’s bright boys and girls said, “Let’s put that gene into corn. Then every corn plant will become a source of the larvae toxin.” And so they inserted the gene for the Bt toxin into corn, patented the resulting seed, and sold it widely around the world until now, 95 percent of the corn grown in the United States, for one example, is Monsanto’s GMO corn—and woe to any farmer who tries to save its seed for planting next year, because they will be sued for infringing Monsanto’s patent rights.
Everything seemed hunky-dory for Monsanto. They had this corn protection racket sewn up. Except they didn’t quite think it through. They forgot about Nature.
The force of nature is like the force of water. It will eventually go where it wants to go. Nature spent a lot of time and effort developing both Bacillus thuringiensis and the primeval ancestor of corn. They were never meant to be combined in one organism. How dare the pipsqueaks at Monsanto create this Frankenstein’s monster of a corn plant? Nature protects her own, and her own includes insect larvae, of which she is evidently especially fond, since they are so ubiquitous. Her protective field is called evolution. If you suppress one of her children by stepping on its neck, she will evolve it to become able to get out from under your boot.
With Bt toxin everywhere—about 67 billion acres of Bt corn grown in the United States alone every year—not only corn rootworms started dying, but also butterfly larvae, and many other species of larvae-producing insects. All they had to do was eat some of the corn, or even its pollen, to die. Nature threw the evolutionary lever to “ON” pretty quick, given this staggering assault on her children. And so now we have western corn rootworm that has evolved to be impervious to Bt toxin.
Now it’s nature’s turn to push back. Now that western corn rootworm likes Monsanto’s Bt corn, what are farmers to do? Before Bt corn, they used pesticides. Now they’ll have to go back to using pesticides. But now the larvae are more resistant to pesticides. It’s like an arms race, and Monsanto started it. How many other insect species are developing a tolerance to Bt toxin? I’ll bet the answer is, “Many.”
So not only has Monsanto thrown a monkey wrench into nature’s finely devised works, it has taken a perfectly useful, safe, and organic insect control—the original Bt—from the hands of organic growers and made it useless.
One thing is certain. In this arms race, nature will be the winner, not Monsanto.