Recently while on a lecture tour of Japan, I was taken to visit an organic rice farmer who has developed an intriguing new way of controlling pests entirely sustainably. The contrast between his small-scale ecological methods and genetic engineering technology—the dangers of which I had been invited to lecture about—struck me very forcibly at the time.
In Japan, paddy fields seem to fill every available inch of undeveloped land, and most of the plots are tiny. That was a surprise for me, who, like most people, imagined Japan to be a fully industrialized “developed” nation. But, in fact, in the countryside, small-scale rice farming is still the norm, though the Japanese government is seeking to change this, to make farming more “efficient.” As elsewhere, the government is moving away from agricultural sustainability and towards dependence on the global market—for example, Japan was once self-sufficient in soya beans, but now 98 percent is imported. This has enraged consumers, as soya is extensively used in Japanese cuisine and a lot of it now comes from the United States, the world’s biggest grower of transgenic soya. The Consumers Union of Japan has collected two million signatures demanding compulsory labeling of genetically engineered soya.
The Furunos are a handsome farming couple in their forties. He is wiry and dark, with a winsome squint and sparkle to his eyes, which give him the appearance of being content with life, as he has every reason to be. She is lively, good-looking and openly ebullient about their success—not in financial terms, but in their farming method, which, since its introduction ten years ago, is now spreading throughout Southeast Asia. In Japan, about ten thousand farmers have taken it up. Their method has been adopted by farmers in South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. Farmers have increased their yield by twenty to fifty percent or more in the first year. One farmer in Laos increased his income three-fold. Without a doubt, their method is a boon to Third World farmers.
“We want to help,” the Furunos told me, when I visited them recently. “Financial success is unimportant. We did not patent the method; we just want it to be widely adopted.” The method has been researched and perfected over the years in their own field. Mr. Furuno introduced me to one of the young men working with the family in order to learn the method. “There’s always someone here who wants to learn, and every day I get several telephone calls from people needing advice,” he told me.
The Furunos’ farming method has been called a “one-bird revolution.” “The duck is the key to success,” Takao Furuno told me. “The secret is to release ducklings into the paddy fields soon after the seedlings are planted.” According to Furuno, the ducks never eat the rice seedlings. “Agronomists say it’s because rice seedlings have too much silica.”
The Furunos have made a very good video, complete with English narration, which shows how the ducklings readily take to the paddy field when they are led there to be released. About twenty ducklings are released per tenth of a hectare. The ducks are good for the rice plants in many ways, including the mechanical stimulation they provide by their paddling, which makes the plant stems thicker and stronger, as demonstrated by careful experimentation. Takao worked out his farming method by a combination of contemplation, inspiration, and experimentation. He calls it the “Aigamo Method,” after the Japanese name for the ducks themselves.
The ducks eat up insect pests and the golden snails, which attack rice plants. They also eat the seeds and seedlings of weeds, using their feet to dig up the weed seedlings, thereby oxygenating the water and encouraging the roots of the rice plants to grow. You can clearly see the difference between the plants in the Aigamo plots and the control plots without Aigamo. In fact, the ducks are so good at weeding that Third World farmers who have adopted Takao’s method now have time to sit and chat instead of spending up to 240 hours per hectare in manual weeding every year. Besides, “pests” and “weeds” have been miraculously transformed into resources for rearing ducks. The ducks are left in the fields twenty-four hours a day, and do not need to be herded back to the shed. They are completely free-range until the rice plants form ears of grain in the field. At that point, the ducks have to be rounded up (otherwise they will eat the rice grains). They are then returned to the shed and fed exclusively on waste grain. There they mature, lay eggs and get ready for the market.
The ducks are not the only inhabitants of Takao’s paddy field. The aquatic fern, azolla, or duckweed, which harbors a blue-green bacterium as a symbiont, is also grown on the surface of the water. The azolla is an efficient nitrogen-fixer, and is both readily eaten by the ducks, as well as attracting insects to be similarly enjoyed by the ducks. The plant is very prolific, doubling itself every three days, so it can be harvested for cattle-feed as well. In addition, the plants spread out to cover the surface of the water, providing hiding places for another inhabitant, the roach (a freshwater fish), and protecting the fish from the ducks. The fish feed on duck feces, on daphnia, and other worms, which in turn feed on the plankton. Both fish and ducks provide manure to fertilize the rice plants throughout the growing season, and the rice plants in turn provide shelter for the ducks.
The Aigamo paddy field, then, is a complex, well-balanced, self-maintaining, self-propagating ecosystem. The only external input is the small amount of waste grain fed to the ducks, and the output is a delicious, nutritious harvest of organic rice, duck and fish. It is amazingly productive. The Furunos’ farm is two hectares; 1.4 of which are paddy fields, while the rest is devoted to growing organic vegetables. This small farm yields annually seven tons of rice, 300 ducks, 4,000 ducklings and enough vegetables to supply 100 people. At that rate, no more than two per cent of the population would need to become farmers in order to feed the nation, and observers believe that with proper management, Japan could become self-sufficient once more. The Aigamo method also explodes the myth that organic farming is necessarily labor-intensive. “Organic farming need not be labor-intensive; it is fun!” says Takao Furuno emphatically.
By using human imagination and ingenuity, and by co-operating with nature rather than re-engineering it, Takao Furuno has cleared yet another path for a safe, diverse, and sustainable agricultural future. So who needs transgenic crops?
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2001.