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Our Soil, Our Future

John Jeavons

September 13, 2013

Category: Science and Technology > Earth Sciences

In 1942, Sir Albert Howard asked: "Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession — the fertility of the soil — is preserved? On the answer to this question the future of civilization lies." For forty years, I have been trying to answer this question. Like Sir Albert, I agree that "The key to a fertile soil and a prosperous agriculture is humus."

Humus, or soil organic matter (SOM), determines soil fertility.  At 2% SOM, soil microbes are just waking up. A healthy soil requires a minimum of 4-6% SOM in temperate regions.

In 1972, when I began working in sustainable agriculture, SOM levels were already low, averaging ~1.5% globally. Today, with 12,000,000 hectares of topsoil lost annually due to agricultural methods that continuously withdraw organic matter from the soil, SOM averages ~1% worldwide.

The soils that produce our food are running on empty.

Traditionally, when soil stops producing, farmers simply move to new land. But with 7 billion mouths to feed, and no new land to farm, the situation has become urgent. Nature takes 500 years to grow one inch of topsoil; 6 inches (3,000 years) are needed to grow food.

Peak Oil? Meet Peak Soil.

Also, Peak Food (870 million people are already starving), and Peak Water (70%-90% of freshwater goes to agriculture; in 12 years, 5.6 billion people will confront acute water stress).

So, what to do?  

I don't claim to have all the answers. But I've been working for 42 years with a group of dedicated individuals to develop solutions. I am the Director of Ecology Action, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in Willits, CA. Through decades of research and fieldwork, we created a method that can be used by small farmers to restore soil, conserve resources, and grow food.

Officially, it's the "GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Sustainable Farming Method" — but many call it "Biointensive" or simply "GB." Used properly, it can:

  • Produce an inch of topsoil 60 times faster than nature. Up to 6 inches can be grown in as little as 50 years.
  • Use up to 66% less water than conventional agriculture, per pound of food produced.
  • Increase yields 100%- 600% compared with other methods, while reducing resource use across the board.

We are a small organization with limited resources, but we train as many people as possible to use this method. They arrive from around the globe each spring to participate in our programs, then return to their communities to practice what they learn. Each participant is encouraged to teach others what they know.

I see from my work that individuals are the solution, that each person can positively impact whole communities and regions. It is my privilege to work with these individuals. Their successes (Kenyan gardens thriving in a 6-year drought; inner-city kids growing vegetables at school; the Mexican government including Biointensive in their rural training program) are my inspiration.

They give me hope that we can still grow a better future.

We just have to dig in and get our hands dirty. Together.

John Jeavons '64 is the Executive Director of Ecology Action and the author of the book How to Grow More Vegetables (And fruits, nuts, grains and other crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. He lives in Willits, California. If you want to get involved or learn more about what he's doing and what he thinks can be done for the world, go to Ecology Action or GROW BIOINTENSIVE Workshops.