Sowing Seeds in the Desert

Reviewed by: Andrew Wilbur
Sowing Seeds in the Desert book review A\J Sowing Seeds in the Desert \ Masanobu Fukuoka

The vision promoted by Masanobu Fukuoka to fight desertification using natural farming methods is undeniably an appealing one. Sowing Seeds in the Desert is the latest attempt to revitalize the teachings of this farmer and philosopher. Initially published in Japanese in the mid-1990s, the book’s vintage adds poignancy to Fukuoka’s optimism about the potential for reversing desertification. Of course, land degradation and desertification have continued apace since its publication, and Fukuoka’s influence has been marginal so far.

The late proponent of no-till, herbicide-free farming is something of a guru to certain sects of agrarians, but the efficacy of his techniques remains controversial. Offering a one-sentence summary of Fukuokan agriculture may be unjustly glib, but it also reflects the tone of Sowing Seeds in the Desert, which often uses the style of Zen koans and philosophical riddles to address technical questions.

Succinctly put, Fukuoka’s natural farming methods involve intercropping within a permanent groundcover, mixing seed dispersal through homemade clay pellets or surface broadcasting, natural fertilization using rotting organic material and the encouragement of wildlife in heavily vegetated areas. These are the features that characterize a Fukuokan farm, and writ large they represent his strategy for arresting desertification.

The fundamentals of Fukuoka’s vision are supported by some scientific studies that investigate the causes of desertification and the potential for its reversal. For example, no-tillage farming is recommended by the UN’s Convention to Combat Desertification as an effective way to conserve soil moisture, reduce labour expenditure, condition the soil using subterranean organisms and reduce soil compaction.

Yet it is difficult not to bristle at the author’s periodic inconsistencies and didacticism. In some instances, Fukuoka employs scientific method to arrive at a certain conclusion, while in others he characterizes this methodology as anthropocentric or insufficiently natural. His concept of nature forms another major sticking point. He regularly invokes the term as though it should be self-explanatory – or least self-revealing – to those with the right perspective. At other junctures, he implores readers to experiment with ecosystems in ways that could be easily challenged as unnatural, such as importing new species to potentially sensitive ecosystems and re-greening deserts whose arid ecologies seem to possess no inherent value to Fukuoka because of their lack of vegetation.

Larry Korn, the book’s editor and translator, helpfully notes that the book’s tone may strike Western readers as circular and abstract because it follows in the manner of Japanese pedagogic traditions. My guess is that this is the source of the frustration alluded to in a couple of otherwise complimentary cover blurbs. Fukuoka’s manner may require readers from the English language tradition to make considerable allowances, but at no point does he seem unwilling to entertain alternative viewpoints. In reading Fukuoka’s words, it is impossible not to hear the voice of a wise elder, and the paradoxes and inconsistencies he elicits might be considered a reflection of the messy, fluctuating state of nature that influences his philosophy.

Until his death in 2008, Fukuoka remained profoundly concerned with the relationship between humanity and nature. His experiments in creating a more harmonious co-existence should be given serious consideration, particularly since he developed a practical model to represent his philosophical musings. It is currently impossible to know what kind of impact the widespread application of his ideas might have, but the stakes are sufficiently high that gambling on Fukuoka being right seems to be a risk worth taking.

Sowing Seeds in the Desert, by Masanobu Fukuoka, White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2012, 216 pages

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