Yale University

Class News

John Jeavons '64 on water wars and ecology action

John Jeavons '64, author of How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, leads workshops in sustainable mini-farming and bio-intensive gardening.

His organization, Ecology Action, is involved with growing fertile soil, healthy food and bountiful gardens. The Ecology Action newsletter can be viewed at www.growbiointensive.org. To see a catalog and to order books, seeds and supplies see www.bountifulgardens.org.

At our 45th reunion, on June 4, 2009, John was a panelist for a session titled "Water Wars." Below is the outline of his remarks at that session.

A global action plan is needed today — at all levels — for the benefit of

  • soil
  • food
  • water

in order to properly preserve

  • civilization
  • environmental habitat
  • global species

We need to take this opportunity.

Recently, in the Economist magazine article "A Water Warning" [November 19, 2008] the Chairman of the Nestle Corporation said, "I am convinced that, under present conditions and with the way water is being managed, we will run out of water long before we run out of fuel." We are in a situation of "peak water."

Water is key to food production. Humankind uses as much as 80% of the water it utilizes for all purposes just in agriculture. Resource-conserving biologically-intensive sustainable farming has the capacity to use 66% to 88% less water per pound of food produced. This kind of approach can transform a challenge of scarcity into one of abundance.

According to the United Nations, by 2025 one-third of the global population will be in dire water straights and another third will be heading in that direction — almost 5 billion people.

This situation is caused by at least two key factors — global warming and population increase.

  • Global warming
    • Climate change may cut agricultural production in half within as little as 20 years due to drought, flooding, and changing temperatures which impact our understanding of what to grow, where and how. A continued shrinking of available water supplies per capita could lead to unmanageable food shortages and social conflict. A dramatic shrinking of global food surpluses indicates we are in a situation of "peak food."
  • Population increase
    • What about population increase? Approximately 213,000 people are added net to the planet daily, requiring about 34,000 more farmable acres each day to feed them — acreage which does not exist and is not being developed. This number of people would repopulate San Francisco every four days.

What can we do to nourish ourselves, our families and communities and take steps to reverse the adverse trends?

Globally, people are relearning the traditional ways that served us so well for thousands of years. The values of the natural world — diversity, integrity, adaptability, and resiliency — are re-entering the cultural exchange.


  • Start where you live with your trowel, mind, energy, vote and dollar.
  • Investigate and learn about GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Food-Raising and similar truly sustainable farming practices. GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Farming can:
    • Use 67%-88% less water per pound of food grown when compared with conventional practices through such simple things as:
      • increased organic matter in the soil
      • balanced soil nutrients
      • shading the soil with closely-spaced plants in a "living mulch"—while building the soil up to 60 times faster than in Nature, producing increased yields with significant reduced energy and nutrient (in organic fertilizer form) inputs and just using open-pollinated seeds

Properly used, biologically-intensive agriculture can grow the 6 inches of farmable soil needed to grow food in as little as 50 years.1 In nature, the worldwide average time to do this is 3,000 years.

  • Develop farming literacy: Learn how to grow some amount of food. We need to resurrect our collective language and understanding of how, when, and what we can grow in the places we live.
  • Use compost to grow food. It holds 6 times its weight in water and greatly enhances yields and the efficiency with which water is utilized.
  • Grow "compost and calorie crops," such as corn, wheat, and amaranth in 60% of your growing area. These crops produce a significant amount of calories and a tremendous amount of compost material for keeping the soil alive and holding water in the soil.
  • Start small. Plant an apple tree. After 7+ years and at intermediate levels, you may have 1 lb of apples per day annually for 3 people.
  • Grow potatoes. They produce more calories per unit of water than many other crops — and up to 20 times the calories per unit of area and time compared with soybeans.
  • Grow bread — a one pound loaf for every week in the year can be grown on as little as 300 square feet, and two bowls of oatmeal per week on an additional 300 square feet.
  • Support and encourage a new generation of farmers. Currently, there is only one farmer for about 625 people in the United States. We need to rebuild our skill base.
  • Become a "living library" — 10,000 years ago, northern Iranians provided all the calories for one person annually in only 20 hours a year growing einkorn hornemani, the original spelt wheat.
  • Participate in and support the growing networks of local farms and farmers markets, Community-Supported Agriculture farms, and food-buying cooperatives.
  • Support land trusts and farms that use most sustainable land-management practices to protect and restore ecosystems.
  • Support legislation for farm credits to build and maintain healthy soil.

Truly sustainable biological farming is the next frontier. In serving the Earth, we will best serve ourselves.

1 Derived from: Douglas Edward Maher, Changes in Carbon Content in a Soil Under Intense Cultivation with Organic Amendments. (Masters thesis in the Soil Science Department, University of California, Berkeley, 1983).