The One Straw Revolution: Book Review

The One Straw Revolution

                When I read The One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka’s manifesto on the art of “natural farming,” I was intrigued by its dramatic difference from the texts we had normally been reading in class. Fukuoka’s philosophical book indeed covers the normal topics of agriculture and food, and yet at the same time speaks to the limitations and hubris of the human race. Fukuoka uses the way the human race looks at agriculture to demonstrate how we also look at health, food, science, and life itself. By healing the land through his natural farming techniques, and living life in way that is pure and humble, man can begin to purify himself.

Fukuoka begins his work by giving the backstory to his philosophy on farming and life, starting from his origins as a young man working at a research laboratory for plant pathology. As a young man Fukuoka was jubilant, full of energy and curiosity. He details some of his experiences and run-ins with famous celebrities in his carefree years as a young adult, until he contracts pneumonia and eventually depression. In a bout of delirium, he wandered a wharf and eventually collapsed on a hill at night. In his daze, a heron emerged from the mist as the sun rose, and suddenly he had an epiphany. This epiphany would shape and define his philosophy on agriculture and life itself: “humanity knows nothing at all.”

From this point he suddenly resigns from his job at his research laboratory, and abandons his life. He returns to his father’s village in an effort to manifest his newfound philosophy in his agriculture.  He began to live a simple, primitive life based on his “do-nothing approach” to farming. For the rest of his life he refines his method of farming, and at the same time refines his philosophy. He believes that humanity truthfully knows very little, and our hubris and hunger for control over the natural world is self-destructive, and by relinquishing our drive for control, we can thrive.

Fukuoka mostly provides spiritual guidance to the reader, offering little in terms of practical agricultural techniques. He is more focused on the justification of his “do-nothing” natural agricultural method, rather than the “how.” He begins most chapters with an anecdote, for example a snake capturing a frog, or a nameless man wandering into his village, using these as springboards to begin a lesson on philosophy. The One Straw Revolution reads beautifully, with vivid imagery and striking prose, but it does not pragmatically teach the reader how exactly to begin this unique method of agriculture. Thus, it reads more as a spiritual scripture, a series of lessons on how man can achieve “spiritual awareness” and abandon the “flash development” that is “linked directly to society’s impending collapse” (110). Fukuoka heralds the way of life that is slow, personal, cognizant of the land, and spiritually satisfying. This spiritual satisfaction is linked to Fukuoka’s contemplation of the “Great Way,” or the “path of spiritual awareness which involves attentiveness to and care for the ordinary activities of daily life” (110).

Although most of this book covers Fukuoka’s spiritual journey, he also touches upon concrete methods to plant crops such as straw, rice and barely. His methods utilize little no chemical fertilizer, no pesticides, no plowing or turning of the soil and no weeding by tillage.  He goes into detail on how he goes about tending to his natural yet productive farmland.

Anyone devoted to environmentalism would do well to read this book, not for its practical applications, but for its unique and simple philosophy. One cannot help but believe that if everyone followed Fukuoka’s teachings, the “extravagance of desire” that is the “fundamental cause” of the world’s present predicament would likely be ended (110). Released at the beginning of the environmentalism movement, Fukuoka champions a lifestyle of simple material means, and comfortable spiritual fulfillment.

Book Review- Genes from the Wild

Genes from the Wild- by Robert and Christine Prescott-Allen

 In this scientific research published by Earthscan, Robert and Christine Prescott-Allen discuss the benefits and costs of using wild genetic resources in agriculture as well as provide in- depth backgrounds on a variety of genetically engineered crops. Although this research was done in 1983, the issues and information are still valid and applicable in today’s context of industrial agriculture.

Wild genetic resources are the favorable and heritable traits of wild plants and animals that can be used or have potential use to people, such as in agriculture. The application of genetics in crops became dominant in the 20th century, which over the years has contributed to the dramatic increase in the production of crops in the US, including rice, sugarcane, peanuts, and soybeans. Some crops such as tomatoes would not be able to grow commercially without the help of genetic resources. The ability to take advantage of genetic variation has allowed breeders to select traits such as environmental adaptation and rapid growth, increasing the yield and allowing non-native plants to grow successfully. Most crops have benefited from breeding with wild genetic resources, such as lettuce and carrots, with the exception of a few major crops, including soybean, cabbages, and citrus fruits. In forage crops, the major benefit of using wild species is the diversity of their growing conditions, allowing the range of domesticated grass to extend to lower latitudes, used to feed livestock. Another major consideration is the category of gene pool in which gene transfer is taking place; primary, secondary, and tertiary gene pools each differs in the fertility and viability of the hybrid species and utilizes different breeding methods to achieve gene transfer.

The main plant characteristics derived from wild species include disease resistance, pest resistance, high yield, vigour, environmental adaptations, high starch and vitamins, cytoplasmic male sterility, petaloid male sterility, and harvest and transport adaptations. The most important characteristic among those would be disease resistance, exhibited by a single dominant gene. Before the use of disease resistant genes, crops suffered immense damages, such as the grassy stunt epidemic in Asia during the early 1970s. Although the gene is easily transferred, there are challenges involved in crossing; the main one is the package-deal effect, which is the common case of disease resistant genes being linked to the genes for other undesirable traits, such as bad taste. With this trade-off in mind, breeders would sometimes have to risk lowered resistance in order to maintain the quality and taste of the crops. However, there is no leeway when it comes to fungal diseases, which are the most severe in crops, making it a priority to purge them.

This research acknowledges that despite all the advantages that wild genetic resources can provide, there are also major costs to consider. Wild genes are threatened by habitat loss, over-exploitation, competition from introduced species and predators. An example is the decline of wild sunflowers in California as a result of urbanization in L.A. It’s not obvious to us that valuable gene pools are disappearing because of the appearance of species abundance. There are two ways in which a germplasm can be conserved- ex situ and in situ. Ex situ is the process of conserving resources outside of their natural habitats (e.g. zoos and gene banks). In situ conservation takes place in their native habitats (e.g. national parks). Ex situ banks are favored by most breeders, firstly, because they can be located anywhere, whereas in situ sites could be far away from breeders. Secondly, in situ banks could be subject to disturbance by poachers, firewood collectors, livestock or the destruction of the sites. Nonetheless, the priority of most conservationists is in situ conservation. In situ banks can keep everything safe in one place and are easier to protect, while ex situ collections risk loss due to human error.

I think this book offers a fair, balanced perspective on how wild genetic resources can benefit society and the importance of mitigating the consequences that entail in terms of the loss in biodiversity. What I find interesting is the difference in the ways of persuasion the authors used to address the advantages and disadvantages of wild genetic resources. They approached the advantages in the most practical and human-relevant manner, focusing on the reaping of economic and social benefits, but when they shifted their discourse to the need for conservation, their style of approach changed to one that demands altruism and insists on our inherent duty to the environment. They did not stress on how conservation can actually benefit society, which would have rendered their persuasion more effective.

Bibliography: Prescott-Allen, R; Prescott-Allen, C. (1983) Genes from the Wild: Using wild genetic resources for food and raw materials. London. Earthscan.