Four billion of the world’s seven billion people live in Asia. And they need to eat.
Farmers and farmlands in the region are under tremendous pressure to produce more food for Asia’s burgeoning billions. Do we go the route of modern western farming techniques using genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides for higher crop yields? Or should we follow in the footsteps of Japanese farming philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka and his “do-nothing”, “zero-farming” approach?
The National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Greater Good Series (GGS) recently brought together Mr Kailash Murthy, a banker turned traditional village farmer in India, and Professor Prakash P. Kumar from the NUS Department of Biological Sciences in a friendly face-off, debating the pros and cons of modern farming methods versus “zero-farming”.
Fukuoka’s zero-farming, which Mr Murthy endorses and adopts on his farm on the outskirts of India’s tech city of Bangalore, follows traditional farming methods. That means no cultivation, no chemicals, no pesticides, no weeding and no production costs – to reap bountiful yields while maintaining a strong respect for nature. Professor Kumar is a prominent scientist working on improving yield and disease resistance in rice varieties in an environmentally-friendly manner, to ensure sustained food production and long-term regional food security.
Prof Kumar kicked off the discussion with this proposal: That there is no conflict between modern technology and traditional farming, and the two can coexist. He weighed on the side of technology, however, illustrating the need for modernisation and genetically-modified crops. He talked about Asia’s staple, rice. “Rice is the main food source for over four billion people, and occupies approximately 600,000km2 in Southeast Asia. Grain yield is often sensitive to drought and global rises in temperature, and we face the challenge of making rice suitable in a rapidly changing environment while ensuring yield stability for food security and developing novel technologies for crop improvement.”
Mr Murthy opted for a visual argument, showing the audience slides of his cornucopia of produce – cucumbers, glistening mangoes and healthy bananas. He said that his personal conversion to “zero farming” took place after he left the banking industry to become a farmer in 1984. He started off using pesticides and chemicals but found pests becoming more resistant to pesticides. In his search for alternative methods he found Mr Fukuoka and the rest is history.
He now spends two to three days every week learning from his four-hectare farm and observing nature at work. His keen eye came in useful when he acquired a new plot of land whose soil was not compatible with papaya trees. To overcome this, he planted creepers which grew over the soil and which coexisted well with the papaya trees. His farm uses only sunlight and water and has yields that rival farms using modern technology, with very low levels of pests and diseases. For example, he planted a banana plant this year that is expected to produce bananas for the next 15 years. Typically, banana crops die after a year of producing fruit.
His farm has also become a platform and resource for his educational talks on food sustainability and environmental integrity. During his talks, he often illustrates how clean and natural the soil on his farm is by eating straight after picking up a handful of soil.
He talked of the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. “In natural farming, one can find over 300 species of plants, similar to the ecosystem found in forests. No one cultivates a forest but that is where we find the most luxuriant growth. I have seen soil fertility in my farm improve tremendously with no fertilisers, no pesticides, no tillage and no weeding.”
It was obviously a topic of interest and there was no shortage of questions from his listeners. One guest owns a vertical farm in Kranji and wanted Mr Murthy’s thoughts on that, and another asked if it would be realistic to grow food in her office while a third brought a Japanese farming colleague who shared his experiences.
Prof Kumar concluded the dialogue by saying that an integrated global approach to farming was the way forward. “It is important that small-scale local farmers continue to be supported domestically, but of equal importance is finding sustainable ways to ensure food security through modern farming methods and the use of technology.”
But perhaps Mr Murthy had the last word. When asked how philanthropy has helped him, he said with a chuckle, “So far, I have not received any support but, of course, I would very happy to get some. It would give me the chance to conduct more awareness talks and outreach programmes.”
NUS GGS features talks by leading minds on topics related to philanthropy. These include generosity, giving and service to the community, as well as leadership, personal well-being and mental resilience. The Series aims to raise awareness of philanthropy and its impact on society.
For further information on the NUS Greater Good Series, contact Chow Wei Ling firstname.lastname@example.org.