The Tokugawa Era (1603-1868), as it was called in Japan, introduced deep plowing which found its greatest stride in the Great Plow-up, then later during Nixon’s “fencerow-to-fencerow” era.2 The First World War created a prodigious demand for wheat because Europe was too focused on fighting to bother with planting. As a result, Americans cultivated their own land, killing the natural system of micro-flora and micro-fauna. Once the soil was devoid of life and water, stored carbon dioxide was able to evaporate from the system and the new plants grown in their place became reliant on the farmer’s industrial methods to simply live.
Wes Jackson coined the phrase, “Treadmill of Vigilance”, which describes what farmers step onto when they cultivate the land. By cultivating the soil, destroying the native plant’s mature roots, and surfacing important micro-fauna thereby killing them, farmers have domesticated the plant to a point that an increasing amount of work must be done to keep it alive and artificially shielded from pests.
Diversity is nature’s main defense against disease (along with a plethora of natural predators), yet we’ve still chosen to grow large-scale mono crops because the human brain is very linear and orderly. This “progress” is man imposing his will on the systems of nature, systems of which he cannot comprehend, let alone control.1
Here in Indiana, approximately 80% of our corn is fed to livestock because Americans are severely addicted to meat and corn grows uncannily good in Indiana, but this isn’t to say that meat is bad. Many nutritionists like Jamie Oliver say that light meats, like fish, poultry, and maybe even a heavy monthly steak should make up of less than 10% of our diet. In 2011, it took 6.7 pounds of grain to yield a quarter-pounder with cheese at Burger King, which amounts to 52.8 gallons of water. Here’s the sobering part… Americans consumed 25.5 billion pounds of beef last year. Not to mention California’s almond addiction.
The more elaborate our countermeasures become, the more complicated and unsurpassable the problems become. This is what Fokouka meant when he said “If you kick nature out of the house through the windows, it comes back through the door with a pitchfork.” The Great Plow-Up was us throwing nature out the window and The Dust Bowl was nature with her pitchfork. According to a 2006 study by Susan S. Lang at Cornell University involving more than 125 sources, erosion increases the amount of dust carried by wind, which not only acts as an abrasive and air pollutant but also carries about 20 human infectious disease organisms, including anthrax and tuberculosis.8
Overall yields are decreasing. The growth reported is a result of better equipment, intensification, and other factors not related to the raw yield volume, which has been shown to be decreasing significantly. Furthermore, between 1961 and 1996, nitrogen fertilizer increased over 650%.4 In other words, output increased because of technological advances, not because of better seed. Paul Hawken points out that, generally speaking, all good land is being used for cultivation. Hence the idea that intensification is the only practical way to move forward. Farmers have to focus on creating continuous feedback loops of nutrients by mimicking the red wood forests, the great plains, and prairies. If done, we can increase productivity to a degree that we can feed 10 billion people, without inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals.4
The 3 great faux pas against nature are as follows: Segregation of mixed species, narrowing of the genetic species, and the evisceration of earth. “The most serious misstep”, Benyus says, “is gutting the health of the soil”.1 I use the word, “evisceration” because a strong case could be made for soil as being living entity. The sand and silt serves as the skeletal system; the clay and humus serve as connective tissues and muscles; the water and dissolved solutes function as the lifeblood; the ecosystem of microbial communities are the digestive and respiratory systems, and the flux of nutrients, energy, and life through the soil represents the soul and it ‘reproduces’ by continuously regenerating and constantly growing, developing, and evolving.5 The surrounding ecosystem with it’s natural predators can even be considered an external immune system.
In Iowa, six bushels of soil are lost for every bushel of corn produced. Ecologist Jon Piper said, “Over a mere century of tilling the prairie soils of North America we have lost one third of their topsoil, and up to 50% of their original fertility.1 The United States is losing soil 10 times faster than the natural replenishment rate, while China and India are losing soil 30 to 40 times faster.8
At this point, I feel compelled to explain that I seek not to romanticize nature, but rather, to educate others on the guiding principles that nature uses. As Biologist Janine Benyus says, “Use nature as a model, a measure, and a mentor”. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations.1
Fokouka describes my laments through his own experience in Japan, “Many Japanese rice fields, which have been laid to waste by the exploitative farming practices of a single generation.”2 He discovered how to handle pests with aplomb and poise. Insects and plant communities maintain a stable relationship in natural fields. The extent of the maturation of the ecosystem is a rough measure of the effectiveness of the external immune system of the plants. Permaculture seeks to bring these elements back into harmony, thereby creating a stable yield without inputs.
Masinobu Fokouka’s four principles of natural farming are:
- No cultivation or plowing because the earth cultivates itself with microorganisms, small animals, and earthworms.
“Each time we plow, we simplify the soil, taking away some of its capacity to grow crops. We break apart its intricate architecture and wreak havoc with the dream team of microfauna and microflora that glues it together into colloids, or clumps, of soil and organic matter. This clumping is vital; it leaves air channels like veins throughout the soil, giving water a way to sink down deep. Soils that are plowed too fine or packed too hard lose their colloids, and with them the art of retaining water.” Janine Benyus, pg. 14
- No chemical fertilizer. Once the balance is restored, if left to itself, the garden will create various loops for nutrients creating an abundance of food using free energy from the sun. If clover is left to decompose over the soil, Fokouka said it will usually provide enough nitrogen to grow the next year’s crop. Grass trimmings are ideal because it’s an abundant resource and covers the soil, which also has the added benefit of retaining water more efficiently.
- No weeding by tillage or herbicides. Weeds have their purpose in the biological community, so the controlling of weeds is superior to eliminating them. Fokouka lays down the seeds for clover just before the last snow2, this way the weeds will not be able to take root or get the sun they need to survive. Using nature as a mentor we see that it is guiding us in the direction of embracing diversity. Diversity is a law of nature; It is the fuel for evolutionary systems and it creates many synergistic qualities that we remain ignorant of. Plants use diversity as a shield from disease. When nature comes back into harmony, it will take care of itself. Mono-crops all have exactly the same immune defense and so must depend on the farmer for survival. Once a disease takes hold of one plant, the entire field is at whim of the disease. Diversity of crops completely solves this problem and if embraced would eliminate the use of herbicides. Occasional weeding by hand is needed for the first few years, but as plants become established, they provide no solar resources for further weeds to grow.
- No dependence on chemicals. According to Fokouka, 10 chickens are enough to fertilize ¼ acre. Even if the farmer chooses not use animals to synergize their results, green manure, such as grass trimmings and clover, will suffice. Cow manure can also be used in scarce amounts at first while the system grows to maturity. Chemical treatments are currently being used to control stem rot, rice blast disease, and bacterial leaf blight, but Fokouka reminds us that if farmers stop: A. Using weak seeds in the form of “improved” seeds, B. Stop adding too much nitrogen to the soil, and C. Reduce the amount of irrigation water so roots can grow strong, then in his words, “these diseases would all but disappear and chemical sprays would become unnecessary”.2
“When you look at a prairie, you don’t see complete losses from anything – you don’t see net soil erosion or devastating pest epidemics. You don’t see the need for fertilizers or pesticides. You see a system that runs on sun and rain, year after year, with no one to cultivate the soil or plant the seeds. It drinks in no excess inputs and excretes no damaging wastes. It recycles all its nutrients, it conserves water, it produces abundantly, and because it’s chock-full of genetic information and local know-how, it adapts.” – Janine Benyus
If immediately and suddenly abandoned, Fokouka estimated that the average crop losses in the first year would probably reach only about 10%, but after this initial loss, he believed that harvests would increase and eventually surpass their original level. However, this is assuming all industrial inputs and processes are abandoned simultaneously. Given the state of the agricultural industry, this would be a radical and unnecessary solution, such a piecemeal system would collapse immediately. The problem for many Indiana farmers is the fact that they are barely floating because the profit margins are so tight. While it is true that they will lose some profit for 3 years while the system matures and recovers from the damage and some weeding, composting, and pruning are necessary at first, it is also true that inputs decrease dramatically offsetting serious hardship. After 3 years, the yields continue to increase and the soil starts to come back to life. Once the system is mature, the farmer needs only to keep up with the harvest, thereby enjoying more leisure and even participating in social activities within their community, which are crucial rituals for any highly civilized society.
Intensification is a process designed to maximize shareholder value, not maximize the life of the employees in the organization or the community in which the business resides. This is the epitome of our current business paradigm. Multinational corporations exist for one reason: to make money. In the same way we only see certain colors and hear certain sounds, our current business paradigm only sees the vibrations between profit and shareholder value. Outside of the awareness of most business owners is the importance of the triple bottom line. It is a philosophy of business that focuses on not simply the economic aspect, but the social and environmental aspects as well. John Elkington referred to it as the 3P’s; People, Planet, Profit.
Leaderless collective decision-making is sometimes called “swarm-intelligence”, which results in a workforce that has flexibility (adaptation), robustness (resiliency), and self-organization (self-management).9 Instead of a top-down hierarchy, swarms use bottom-down emergence. Honeybees teach us an important lesson ignored by the current paradigm; Once the colony becomes too large, it splits the nest into two, which is nature’s way of dealing with the inefficiencies that unbalance the ratio between a colony’s size and its resource consumption, which in turn recalibrates the feedback system. Feedback is a series of signals and responses an organism exchanges with its environment. In his book, “Organic Growth”, Ed Hess describes the reorganization of mid-sized companies. By doing so, the organization can receive the most efficient feedback possible helping companies understand how customers fit inside the business structure.
The most mature way in which a business or ecosystem can operate is a Type III system or the “attaining positive” stage that takes advantage of its continuous feedback loops of resources and informational input. They survive with the help of the (business) ecosystem, which is a stable system of connections and networks where the individual is good for the whole and the whole is good to the individual. Isolate businesses and you lose the synergy between cooperating interests and the external immune system which includes a social and environmental body of knowledge to bring the triple bottom line back into balance. In other words, if you isolate either businesses or aspects of an ecosystem then you will lose synergistic growth and the natural web of immune responses.5
Steak ‘n Shake, which was originally an Indianapolis company, can reach out to local farmers to give or sell them loads of their wasted vegetables. They can then be made into compost that attracts bugs and insects for their chickens to eat. Once taken off pure corn and grain diets (80% of Indiana corn is fed to livestock), their light yellow yoke becomes bright orange and it holds more nutritional value than a dozen of our current industrial eggs. These farmers can then provide a far superior product for a fraction of the cost of their current tasteless eggs. Steak ‘n Shake can then increase profit and quality while supporting local farms. More of these types of relationships with other local businesses will build a strong business ecosystem and a resilient economy.
- Benyus, J., Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
- Fokouka, M., The One-Straw Revolution
- Hawken, P., Blessed Unrest
- Hawken, P., Natural Capitalism
- Hutchins, G., The Nature of Business: Redesign for Resilience
- Mirandola, G., Oration on the Dignity of Man
- Mollison, B., Permaculture: A Design Manual
- Bonabeau, E. and Meyer, C. (2001). “Swarm Intelligence: A Whole New Way to Think About Business.” Harvard Business Review, 1 May, 108.5
- Ibid., p. 1135