How to feed the world sustainably: a lesson in natural farming

natural farming

With a rapidly expanding global population, we need to find ways to grow crops as quickly as possible. Moreover, this necessary increase in efficiency has to be achieved in a sustainable way. For example, it can’t involve an even bigger reliance on agrochemicals, which are unsustainable. Instead, we need to grow crops to feed billions of people in a way that is in harmony with the natural world, rather than destroying it. Natural farming is a revolutionary alternative.

Natural farming involves using various techniques to grow crops in a truly sustainable way. And these agricultural methods should be swiftly adopted if we are to feed an ever-growing population.


Selectivity in crop choice 

Some crops grow faster than others. In light of this, it would be wise for agriculture to focus on the fastest growing crops. For vegetables, this would include radishes, salad leaves, bush beans, carrots, spinach, mustard greens, toy bok choi, baby turnips, baby kale greens, arugula, microgreens, and baby swiss chard. These are all crops that can grow in 45 days or less. Meanwhile, the fastest-growing fruits include peaches, coconuts, apples, pears, apricots, and cherries.

Of course, how the crops are grown is what matters. If harmful pesticides are used, then this will damage the soil and become an unsustainable practice, even if the focus on fast-growing crops helps to meet the global population’s food requirements.


Natural farming 

Masanobu Fukuoka was a Japanese farmer and philosopher who established an ecological approach to farming known as natural farming or ‘do-nothing farming’. This system is based on the understanding of the complexity of living organisms that shape an ecosystem and uses this knowledge to the advantage of growing crops. The five principles of natural farming are:

  1. Human cultivation of soil, plowing or tilling are unnecessary, as is the use of powered machines.
  2. Prepared fertilizers are unnecessary, as is the process of preparing compost.
  3. Weeding, either by cultivation or herbicides, is unnecessary; instead, Fukuoka recommended that weed suppression should be minimal, with minimal disturbance.
  4. The application of pesticides and herbicides is unnecessary.
  5. Pruning fruit trees is unnecessary.


Fukuoka’s lessons for the modern world

In his classic work One Straw Revolution (1975), Fukuoka describes how he developed and implemented many different techniques to grow crops naturally – in harmony with the ecosystem – while achieving similar yields as modern agricultural practices. Some studies suggest that organic farming can actually produce higher yields than conventional farming. Since the latter involves so much environmental damage, with no added benefit compared to natural farming, this caused Fukuoka some serious disillusionment.

Fukuoka’s farm is an exemplary model of how crops can be grown efficiently and sustainably. Instead of plowing to get rid of weeds he learned to control them with a ground cover of white clover and a mulch of barley straw, which proved to be highly effective. Fukuoka grew a crop of rice and one of barley every year. Because he returned the straw to the fields and had the ground cover of white clover, the soil actually improved each year. The natural balance of insects and a healthy soil helped to keep insect and disease infestations to a minimum.

Fukuoka also advised that crops should be grown in the right seasons. One issue he took with our modern consumption habits is that we want to eat foods when they are out of season. This often means unnatural ways of farming, as well as the need to import produce from other countries, which involves the use of harmful preservatives and increased greenhouse gas emissions from the lengthy transportation of crops.

We can learn a lot of natural farming. Its methods are simple – but its simplicity, as Fukuoka taught, is the key to its success and sustainability.


About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe

Sam is a freelance writer who is particularly interested in space exploration, sustainability, tech, and agriculture.


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