Edson Hiroshi Seo, 33, has already become a legend as the travelling champion of alternative agriculture across Brazil.
The New Idea
As an agronomy student in Sao Paulo, Hiroshi was one of Brazil's first two practitioners of alternative, gentle agriculture. He has continued to experiment and read widely, mastering and modifying both broad framework ideas and the most detailed technical aspects of soil science.Hiroshi feels Brazil could resolve much of its poverty by making its land produce wisely. For example, fish farming in water-rich areas in central Brazil alone could close the country's protein gap.According to Hiroshi, raising agricultural productivity in Brazil does not necessarily require large expanses of land; it does not entail the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and eventual damage to the environment. Hiroshi has demonstrated that both small holders and commercial farmers can employ soil management techniques that are appropriate to Brazil's varying climates; they can double and triple productivity without using toxic inputs; they can tap hidden water resources without undue expense.Hiroshi's work with zeolite provides a small example of his applied inventiveness. One of the problems with water soluble nitrogen fertilizers is that they weaken the plants that they serve by first administering massive overdoses and later, too little nitrogen. Using ground zeolite instead provides steady supplies of nitrogen for several years because the zeolite attracts nitrogen-producing bacteria. Although this is something of an improvement, Hiroshi is not satisfied because he believes healthy plants require balanced nutrition every bit as much as people do -- not a lot of only a few nutrients. He is now using zeolite as a feed supplement, precisely because it rounds out the feed's mineral content.Hiroshi has dedicated his adult life to studying, perfecting, and teaching a series of alternative technologies that are both appropriate to Brazil's diverse rural contexts and environmentally sound. He has carried his work tirelessly across the country, gradually building a following among agronomy students, agronomists, and local leaders. Hiroshi now wants to systematize and multiply what he has started. To that end, he has just founded the Center for Research and Training in Agriculture and Alternative Technology, located centrally in Brasilia. This center will facilitate his research and make it much easier for him to pass on his knowledge in an efficient "hands-on" manner.
Brazil's current educational system prepares agronomy and engineering students to enter agri-business or industry once they graduate. But it does not train them to serve the needs of the rural poor. University research and development are geared toward "modernizing" Brazilian agriculture by raising productivity and stepping up mechanization. Institutional attention to the needs of the small farmer is scant.The failure to invest in small, staple agriculture has hastened the rural-to-urban exodus. Investment in "modern", high-yield techniques continues, with little thought as to whether these methods also pollute the environment or expose farm workers and consumers to serious health risks.For years, visionaries and a growing number of professionals have decried the shortsightedness of the "big is beautiful" approach. Hiroshi, for example, has demonstrated that deforestation and soil erosion will cause hundreds of Brazilian rivers to dry up in the next one or two hundred years, particularly in the northeast.
Experiencing the fast growing demand for alternative technology in agriculture and armed with his previous experience, Hiroshi has set up the Center for Training in Agriculture and Alternative Technology in Brasilia. In response to the problem he had before, he located the Center on a university campus, thereby gaining access to the necessary infrastructure -- including laboratories, classrooms, student housing, a cafeteria and technical supplies.To ensure that the Center has a steady income, Hiroshi plans to charge participants a modest tuition. Furthermore, he hopes his students and co-teachers can charge fees for technical services. Hiroshi hopes to enlist business sponsorship, in part to install an experimental agricultural station on a private farm where students and researchers can get hands-on experience. Finally, he hopes to persuade large commercial farms all over Brazil to host regional encounters of small producers.Hiroshi is confident that the demand for practical training in alternative agriculture will continue to grow. He will rely on his already considerable teaching reputation to attract his first students from universities, community groups, and government. Hiroshi will teach courses at the Center that he has been constantly refining. These include: "the self-sufficient farm," instruction in techniques using organic fertilizers, alternative energy sources, food conservation and natural insecticides;"construction with ferro-cement," a simple, economical building material that can be used to make everything from water tanks to silos to houses; "bio-digestors," a device used widely in rural China to break down organic material in order to produce methane fuel and natural fertilizer; "alternative food preparation," miso, shoyu, and other high-protein preserves; and "do-it-yourself housing," low income dwellings.
Born 33 years ago in Sao Paulo to Japanese-Brazilian parents, Hiroshi was formally trained in agronomy but is also a writer, musician, Zen philosopher, and practitioner of yoga and tai-chi.Hiroshi has always worked autonomously, pursuing diverse means to arrive at the same end. His teaching experience is varied and considerable. He has taught an ecological agriculture course to community development associations and ecology groups in every state capital in Brazil, as well as to agronomy and technical students. He has given his ferro-cement and bio-digestor seminars to agronomy and technical schools and small producers' associations all across the country. He has given visiting lectures in many schools of agronomy.For years, Hiroshi has experimented with producing alternative, high-protein foods like miso and shoyu. Ashoka Fellow Sonia Hirsch has used many of his ideas and recipes in her radio programs and books. Hiroshi has written and spoken extensively on natural agriculture and low-cost energy alternatives,and he plans several other books.Until now, most alternative technology seminars have been the result of student rather than faculty initiative. And when they do take place, participants only rarely go beyond a theoretical discussion of the possibilities. That situation prompted Hiroshi to found a small foundation in the interior of the state of Bahia to give students from all over Brazil a chance to test alternative housing, energy, and food-growing technologies empirically. Most of the methods they explored were simple, cheap and labor-intensive and thus well-suited to the needs of Brazil's rural poor. Hiroshi believes that the diffusion of such techniques would both enhance cooperation between professional agronomists and community leaders and decrease the poor farmer's dependency on outside suppliers and middlemen.Unfortunately, the foundation proved to be ahead of its time. Its distant location and lack of infrastructure and funds forced it to close despite the interest of hundreds of students and farmers who participated in the courses. Hiroshi took his courses and demonstrations on the road, supporting himself by consulting to commercial farmers. He continued to experiment and rethink his approach, always focused on finding ways of keeping poor farmers on their lands by improving their standards of living in sustainable ways.Hiroshi has been a role model for many young alternative agriculture entrepreneurs who are now becoming influential in their own right. Ashoka Associate Eugenio Ferrari, for example, remembers how much Hiroshi's visit to his agronomy campus helped his effort to launch a student alternative agriculture movement there.As a consultant to large commercial farms, Hiroshi has employed organic techniques to increase their productivity. In 1983, he won the rural productivity prize of the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform. The Institute was astounded to see him triple and quadruple private growers' yields by using organic fertilizers and natural pest control techniques.Hiroshi himself has a unique vision of his country's rural future. "We can draw the solution to Brazil's problems from the earth. But the green of our flag, which symbolizes our plant life, is being destroyed. The blue of our sky is being polluted. The yellow represents our gold -- not that which is mined from the earth but that of the honey, butter and sunflowers that are not yet on Brazilian tables."