Shumei International Press, 2007,
Reviewed by Sandra White
American writer and photographer Lisa Hamilton had been investigating global food production for many years when in 2003 she was invited by Shumei, a Japanese spiritual organisation (shumei.org), to interrogate their approach to farming, Natural Agriculture. For three years, mostly in Japan, she visited individual farmers and the people who distribute and eat their produce and one of the attractive aspects of this book is her immediate openness about how her Western mind wrestled with their Eastern approach.
As the title suggests, there is more to Natural Agriculture than simply producing food. Combining aspects of Buddhism and Shinto, it aspires to shape a wholesome society which upholds the complexity of nature and shares her fruits with other creatures as well as fellow human beings.
After an introduction to Natural Agriculture’s principles and a history of Japan’s relationship with food, Hamilton profiles the people she met, under four themes: Grow: Natural Agriculture as a Farming System; Connect: Natural Agriculture as a Food Culture; Cultivate: Natural Agriculture as an Experience; and Live: Natural Agriculture as a Way of Life. Then she offers Afterword: Embracing Possibility, where she addresses her own scepticism.
Through distilled prose, short engaging chapters and unusual photographs, she builds a complex picture which, in my view, does justice to Shumei’s ambition to move the world away from contemporary farming practices which are so destructive to the soil. She describes farming in harmony with larger nature, communities of committed purchasers, transformations in physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing among farmers and eaters alike and, finally, the rippling out of these transformations into individual attitudes and behaviours which could cultivate world peace.
A bold claim – but this is not an idealised portrait. Some of the profiles hint at inner personal dynamics which, without transformation, play out on the world stage and produce war, inequality, poverty and famine. She makes struggles transparent and acknowledges the structures and power inherent in a spiritual organisation like Shumei, whose influence over its members is something our secular society might envy.
Natural Agriculture is quite controversial, even within organic circles. No pesticide or fertiliser of any kind is applied, seeds are saved and, whenever possible, there is no rotation. All this, within an active attitude of love, respect and gratitude, supports the soil’s innate capacity to partner crops suited to its local characteristics, strengthening the life force of the plants to withstand attacks from pests, diseases and adverse weather conditions. At Shumei’s small vegetable initiative in Wiltshire, (shumei.eu/yatesbury/), the yield was only 10% reduced by our awful weather this year, (its third), in comparison to other organic farmers reporting shortfalls of 15 – 50%.
Hamilton showcases powerfully how this approach could feed people, change attitudes and nourish peace.