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March 27-29, 2000 GROW BIOINTENSIVE conference on the U.C. Davis campus
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A GROW BIOINTENSIVE Model for the New Century

It was like a cherished dream come true. All the names seen for so long in the newsletter, directors of GROW BIOINTENSIVE projects worldwide, old friends of Ecology Action, Three-Day Workshop participants - as well as leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement, university professors and small-scale farmers, were all there, present in one huge room. Two hundred thirty-five of us from 16 countries and 24 states, ready to learn, share and network as much as we could during the three days of the March 27-29 GROW BIOINTENSIVE conference on the U.C. Davis campus.

Hugh Roberts, Conference Chairman, welcoming conference participants

For some of us the conference began Sunday afternoon as we toured soil test sites at the University of California Davis campus and Sunday evening when we met with others who would be support people. It was exciting to see Joshua Machinga and Emmanuel Omondi there from Kenya, and Fernando Pia from Argentina. During the course of the evening, Juan Manuel Martinez walked in with Padre Julio de la Garza, Gaspar Mayagoitia and Moises Cuevas Vasquez - all GROW BIOINTENSIVE project directors from Mexico. By the end of the evening, the room was filled with wonderful people from all over the world.

The main part of the conference was held in the auditorium of Freeborn Hall. Alice Waters, author and proprietress of Chez Panisse restaurant, who prepared lunches for participants, surprised us with wonderful buffet breakfasts served in the lobby of the auditorium. They included fruit, juices, and a beautiful assortment of freshly baked pastries. Food from the buffet was also available for snacks during the day.

At the front of the main room were a raised podium on the right and a raised panelist table on the left. Tables had been arranged throughout the room diagonally to the front so that everyone could have a writing/eating space and still see the presenters. A loudspeaker system distributed sound and also made it possible for each talk to be taped. On the left side of the room a long table was filled with Spanish-speaking participants from Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and Ecuador and their translators. In a raised area on the right Russian translators served three people, one from Uzbekistan and two from Armenia. There was also a legal stenographer taking notes of all the presentations, which will be used to create the conference proceedings which will be available approximately September 1, 2000 from Ecology Action, 5798 Ridgewood Rd., Willits, CA 95490 for $30 postpaid. Audio tapes may be obtained by contacting: Audio Productions 1-800-488-5455.

William Lacy, Vice Provost of Outreach and International Programs at U.C. Davis, gave the welcoming address Monday morning. The conference chairman was Hugh Roberts, who also chaired the first and third international conferences on Small-Scale and Intensive Food Production in 1976 and 1981. Subjects covered during the three days included the soil's context in sustainable agriculture, water issues, genetic diversity, farm preservation, nutrition, children's nutrition, agricultural policy, Biosphere II, growing in a passive solar greenhouse, and GROW BIOINTENSIVE applications in Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Kenya and Argentina.

On the first day, John Jeavons gave two presentations, about the challenges of the world situation and about the GROW BIOINTENSIVE solution.

John Jeavons, Director of Ecology Action, during his opening presentation.


In his presentation, "The Global Farm - The Challenge", he noted the future landscape before us which includes the following:

  • An average of 45 years of farmable soil remain globally.
  • For each pound of food eaten in the United States, approximately 6 pounds of this soil are lost due to wind and water erosion because of the ways we farm.
  • Twelve pounds of farmable soil are similarly lost in developing countries, where 80% of the world's population currently lives and where 90% will live by the year 2014.
  • Eighteen pounds of farmable soil are similarly lost in China where 20% of the world' people live. o Worldwide, each person eats approximately 2,000 pounds of food annually.
  • This means that per person approximately 6 tons of farmable soil are lost in the U.S., 12 tons in developing countries, and 18 tons in China each year.
  • 30% of the world's cropland has been abandoned recently in a 40-year period due to severe erosion.
  • Approximately one inch of farmable soil is lost on the average every 28 years in the U.S., 14 years in developing countries and 7 years in China.
    • Yields are down 20% to 60% on degraded land.
  • Approximately 213,000 people are added to the planet daily.
    • This means that approximately 34,000 more farmable acres are needed each day, or average global yields need to be increasing significantly.
    • Instead, farmable acres and/or the quality of farmable acres are being lost daily, and yields per unit of area are not expected to increase significantly in the near future.
  • By 2050 each global citizen on the planet is expected to have only 25% of the water he or she had in 1950.
  • 100% of the Earth's living biomass is expected to be being manipulated by people as early as 2027 according to one study.
  • In 8 of the 12 years ending in 1998, the world consumed more food than it produced.
  • Therefore, by 2014 only about 41% of the worlds population is likely to have an adequate diet.

John noted that in the process of the conference the solutions to these challenges would be discovered - and that in the future we would be able to live well and equitably while conserving resources by focusing on having, creating, and growing enough rather than more.

In Monday's concluding presentation, "GROW BIOINTENSIVE Agricultural Potential - A Solution", John observed that:

  • many feel that up to a doubling of agricultural production may be needed as soon as the year 2050,
  • the question is whether this can be done without depleting the world's fragile soil and resource bases and ecosystems,
  • approximately half of the world's farmable soil needs to be left in wild to preserve the planet's plant and animal genetic diversity.
  • The United Nations, in its Agenda 21, reviewed the world environmental, soil and food situation, and described desirable goals for future food production. These are:
    • reducing chemical use,
    • conserving and rehabilitating soil
    • improving farm productivity
    • conserving plant genetic resources, and
    • developing effective organic farming techniques.

Jeavons said that Ecology Action believes that its "GROW BIOINTENSIVE" agricultural system which it has been researching, developing and teaching for almost three decades - if used properly, meets these needs and that it has the capacity to support ecological balance while doubling the world's food supply. This method:

  • is highly productive,
  • is resource-conserving and requires only local resources,
  • is effective without expensive outside inputs or machinery, allowing many more people to have their own productive mini-farms,
  • promotes a local sharing of regional and national farming power,
  • is environmentally stable and robust,
  • contributes to a diverse and strong social fabric,and
  • promotes a healthy environment containing wild areas for the preservation of plant and animal genetic diversity.

Small-scale, even personal-scale farming is not a new concept. It is as old as agriculture itself. One study of 15 countries, primarily in Asia and Africa, found that per-acre output on small farms can be as much as four to five times higher than that on large ones. Russia, over the years, has often produced 30% to 50% of its food on household plots of less than an acre each representing as little as 3% to 5% of all Russian farmland. Dr. Robert Netting, an ecological anthropologist, after decades of field studies of Nigeria, Mexico, the Swiss Alps and Asia, observes that small-scale, highly diversified agriculture is the most ecologically sound, efficient and stable method of food production. The productivity of small-scale farms is also being widely recognized by agricultural economists who call it the "inverse relationship between farm size and productivity."

"GROW BIOINTENSIVE" practices with an average buildup in skill and soil fertility can enable farmers to produce approximately double the averages of conventional farming techniques in a given region, and sometimes more.

Jeavons continued to observe that there are additional "economies of small-scale" with the "GROW BIOINTENSIVE" approach. Per unit of production, "GROW BIOINTENSIVE" can use 67 go 88 percent less water, 50 to 100 percent less nutrient input in the form of purchased organic fertilizer, and 99 percent less energy, compared with conventional agricultural practices.

The practical result is that a complete balanced diet for one person for one year can be grown sustainably - meaning feeding the soil at the same time with enough carbon - in as little as 4,000 square feet assuming a vegan diet with a significant number of calories being obtained from root crops which produce a large number of calories per unit of area - such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, burdock, garlic, salsify and parsnips. "GROW BIOINTENSIVE" has been shown to work well in virtually every climate and soil where food is grown - and it is being used in over 100 countries. In the first test in the difficult Siberian climate in 1995, GROW BIOINTENSIVE growing areas averaged yields that were 286% higher than US conventional averages. In another test in India, by the end of the third growing season, low-income families with no previous farming experience, in sandy soil, and with only fresh manure as fertilizer, were producing yields that were equal to 75% to 100% of those being obtained by the good farmers in India. In Mexico, when the government provides assistance to people with no food, the cost is reportedly US$800 to 1,000 per person. Yet, GROW BIOINTENSIVE practices have been taught to people there by the nonprofit organization ECOPOL at the cost of about US$3.20 per family of six.

Conference participants listen on.
Translators were provided for several languages.

These things are key, because by 2014 the amount of food-growing area worldwide may well be as little as 9,000 square feet - and about 4,500 square feet if half of the area is left in wild to preserve the plant and animal genetic diversity so necessary to our global ecosystem.

In contrast, current conventional agricultural methods - both chemical and organic - require approximately 31,000 square feet to grow an average diet - and 7,000 square feet for a vegan diet.

To meet the world soil challenge, "GROW BIOINTENSIVE" has the capacity to build up to 1 inch of farmable soil in as little as 8.5 years and the 6 inches necessary for farming in as little as 51 years. In contrast, the 6 inches of farmable soil we are depending on now globally first began being formed 3,000 years ago in 1,000 BC, at a time when the Romans had primitive forms of chariots. In California, this soil-building process is slower and first began about 12,000 years ago, in approximately 10,000 BC during a world period of time known as the Iron Age.

Instead of "growing crops", we need to start "growing soil", John observed. Fortunately, to "grow soil" we need to grow crops, so we have not "lost" anything. Instead, we get both. It's a win-win solution. In the process, we will have changed our perspective, however. Our goal will not just be to harvest but to grow soil fertility!

In addition, "GROW BIOINTENSIVE" practices can significantly help lessen the global warming challenge. If the whole world were practicing these techniques, we actually could tie up as much as 30 years' worth of surplus carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the form of increased crop biomass per unit of area and increased organic matter in the soil in the form of compost.

One of the ways in which to grow soil and sufficient diets in a small area is with the "60-30-10" approach. 60% of the farmÕs growing area is grown in seed and grain crops, such as maize, wheat and amaranth. These compost crops produce a significant amount of calories for diet and a large amount of carbon for compost per unit of area. 30% of the area is grown in special root crops, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes. These diet crops produce a large amount of calories per unit of area. 10% of the area is grown in salad or salsa crops for the additional vitamins and minerals needed to produce a complete diet.

"The choice is ours", Jeavons continued. "We can have a century of increasing desertification and increasing scarcity of per-capita resources, farmable soil and food, or we can transform the current global challenge into a situation of abundance and, more important, of enough for everyone.

"As Candide noted, the whole world is a garden. And what a wonderful place it would be if each one of us took care of our part of the earth, our garden. It's that simple. That's how the global challenge can be transformed into bite-sized pieces, and we can all take responsibility for our piece. "Yet 'GROW BIOINTENSIVE' practices are not the answer. You are the answer - each one of us is. It's how we use these practices, to build up the soil or to deplete it, that will make the difference. We hope that you will become part of that process."

On Monday and Tuesday evenings, we had a chance to see displays of some of the small-scale agricultural work being done in the U.S. and worldwide during the poster sessions. On the last day, participants broke into small groups to develop recommendations for GROW BIOINTENSIVE policy and action in the areas of genetic diversity, networking, nutrition, agricultural policy, research, training and education, and water.

On Thursday morning, after the official conference was over, some GROW BIOINTENSIVE practitioners and support people met for several hours to exchange ideas on teaching, research, funding and networking.

The U.C. Davis campus was a good place to hold such a gathering. It is quiet and low-key, with huge old trees that, according to one Davis resident, are being cared for through a Tree Save program. Much of the vehicular traffic is bicycles; there are bike racks of all types and materials everywhere. And the city of Davis itself has a small-town feel to it.

Mention needs to be made of the wonderful lunches Alice Waters planned for us. Although a small plate of meat was present at each meal, most of the foods were wonderfully seasoned grains, beans and succulent vegetables. Each of the foods Alice prepared was given a unique taste by the subtle herbs and condiments added. Many were marinated in olive oil. There was also a new unique sauce or spread each day which created a good deal of discussion about what its ingredients might be! French bread, exquisite cookies and iced tea completed the meal. It was a ten-minute walk from Freeborn Hall to the campus dining room where we ate. We enjoyed the exercise, sun and fresh air after so much sitting and focusing on agricultural issues.

This conference was the result of many years of planning. It presented the opportunity not only to hear the views of experts in the field of small-scale agriculture but also to network with people who are actually out there every day, doing grassroots work in GROW BIOINTENSIVE mini-farming education as well as a large number of incredibly well-motivated people from the general public. We feel sure that the effects of the conference will be with us for a long time, inspiring greater efforts, connecting us more strongly with each other, and helping advance the cause of greater food security worldwide.
After the conference, Kent Whealy of Seed Savers Exchange wrote us, "I want to tell you and everyone at Ecology Action how very much I enjoyed participating in your recent conference. I am sincerely impressed with what you have been able to accomplish. As speaker after speaker got up and told how hundreds and even thousands of families are literally able to eat because of your methods, well.....I didn't really realize."

John Doran of the USDA Agricultural Research Service wrote that the conference was "... one of the most inspiring conferences that I have been to in my over 25 years as a scientist and a lifetime as a person. From my perspective, one of the greatest threats that humanity and the planet face is in finding resource-friendly ways of meeting human needs for food and fiber while maintaining environmental stability and conserving resources for future generations... We must 'translate our science into practice'. This conference brought the necessary people together to clearly see that in sustainably producing food we must use nature as our guide, we must escape from the poverty of affluence which is always striving to accumulate more of things you really don't need, and we must 'seize the day' in recognizing the opportunity for finding a new way of living in harmony with nature and humankind in the new millennium... The conference helped me to see the human and earthly needs that are not being met by our current industrial approaches to agriculture. It also highlighted that the needs of the poor and disenfranchised can be met by GROW BIOINTENSIVE agriculture... GROW BIOINTENSIVE agriculture... does provide a model for the characteristics which a future agriculture will need to achieve the vision of 'Sustaining the People and the Land.'"

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