In the preface of his book on natural agriculture, Masanobu Fukuoka writes: “The fundamental idea of natural agriculture is that nature should remain free of all human interference and intervention. The aim is to restore the nature destroyed by the knowledge and actions of mankind…”. He establishes the basic principle that agriculture has been “disturbed” by mankind.
Is it not the very principle of agriculture to feed mankind?
1 - Human intervention in crops
The definition of agriculture according to Larousse: “a collection of activities carried out by humans, within a given biological and socio-economic environment, to obtain useful plant and animal products, those that can be used as food in particular”.
So is natural agriculture just a poetic figure of speech, an oxymoron? How many hectoliters/ha could a vine produce without human intervention?
The simple fact of existing is interventionist and destructive in nature, as we are by essence consumers of resources. And that is without mentioning our tendency to keep reproducing.
2 - Our bacterial ancestors
Bacteria first appeared around 4 billion years ago and they continue to multiply, relentlessly trying to occupy as much space as possible and maximize their living environment. Anything goes in this fight for life:
- Competition for nutrients.
- Competition for space.
- Destruction of the enemy.
Nature evolves, finding new balances, being reshaped by these intestinal battles.
3 - Is human intervention “natural”?
Let’s imagine agriculture with fewer inputs, without all the unnecessary work carried out to feed us better, and for longer.
Inoculation of microorganisms
Throughout history, mankind has used microorganisms to ferment grape juice and to produce food. Lactic acid bacteria that produce our cheese originally came from the soil, before they colonized the rumen of cows!
Inoculation involves taking a microorganism that has been selected and produced by humans and “injecting” it into another environment. Is this an unnatural act?
Could we permanently alter the environment?
Louis Pasteur said: “the microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything”. A microbe’s capacity to multiply in the environment is what determines its longevity and population dynamic.
It is unrealistic to expect soil inoculation to indefinitely resolve all problems related to mineralization, blockage of nutrients and other imbalances. Even when added in significant quantities, a microorganism selected for its agronomic properties will always come into competition with the indigenous microorganisms, which are by definition better adapted to the environment.
Plant inoculation, however, can last for as long as the host plants survive.
For example, this is the principle of rhizosphere bacteria, also known as PGPR (Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria), which live in the rhizosphere, the soil area immediately surrounding the plant’s roots. These PGPRs are attracted to and retained by the root exudates released by the plant, which they feed on and which help them attach to the roots. In return, these rhizobacteria perform actions that are beneficial to the plant (solubilization of phosphorus, chelation of minerals, etc.).
Another example is mycorrhizal fungi, which establish a symbiotic relationship with the plant, collecting sugar produced by photosynthesis and in return producing mycelial networks that extend the plant’s roots and enable it to explore the soil more rigorously and extensively, thus obtaining better nutrition.
4 - In conclusion
If farmers want to work as naturally as possible in order to retain the productive properties of their soil over time, it is essential that they become actively involved in its preservation. And even if the soil is the foundation for everything, this does not mean that we should overlook the protection of vegetation and the optimization of plants and seeds. How could we possibly contemplate sustainable agriculture without taking into account crop yields? Quality and quantity have always been the main priorities of agricultural production. With the world population continuing to grow and agricultural land continuously diminishing, not to mention soil degradation, it is science that will be able to meet the challenge of developing a new form of agriculture, not beliefs or practices from the past. This will help us find a way to feed mankind properly, while also accommodating environmental constraints. The inoculation of plants with symbioses is one of the steps in this journey, but not the only one.
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