How to Feed the World in the Age of Climate Change

Early in 1982, a young Yale graduate with a family and an ambitious plan purchased a rustic, wooded hillside property with a large shelf in rural Willits, California. It was a perfect site for building a secluded country home with a commanding view of the valley. 

But John Jeavons had a very different idea. After being inspired and mentored by Alan Chadwick, a transplanted English horticulturalist and renowned small garden developer at the University of California in Santa Cruz, Jeavons spent the next several years in nearby Palo Alto developing and testing a much-improved version of an ancient (4,000 years old) Chinese method of mini-farming, nowadays generally known as “biointensive.”  The results were spectacular, and he soon had a following.  

When Jeavons was eventually forced to leave his borrowed Palo Alto site (the host company wanted to build a new parking lot), he decided to establish a permanent research and training facility and chose an unlikely hillside location in Willits.  The soil on his property was rated only “fair” for grazing, with just a few inches of topsoil, well below the quality typically needed for agriculture. But Jeavons had confidence that his new method was ideally-suited for such a difficult farming challenge – and much more.  The word “revolutionary” is not an exaggeration.  One of his long-time fans is the famed Chez Panisse restaurant owner Alice Waters: “John’s methods are nothing short of miraculous.  He has shown…that astonishing quantities of high-quality produce can be grown on even the most devastated land.”  

Jeavons’ unique method (which he has trademarked as “Grow Biointensive”) is really a complete growing system.   It can yield 2-6 times more produce per acre (or sometimes more) than conventional row agriculture, while using only 30 percent (or less) of irrigation water, little or no fossil fuels, and minimal soil amendments, or none.  And it’s done with simple hand tools and modest skills, so it requires very little capital investment.  Over time, you can even create new topsoil at a rate that is at least 60 times faster than in the natural world, if you do it right, because half or more of what you grow will be “carbon crops” that are turned into compost to “feed” the soil as well as people.  (Another advantage of the biointensive method is that it sequesters lots of C02 in the soil, which benefits the climate.)

Jeavons’ new Common Ground Mini-Farm, as he named it, was an immediate success.  Within 11 weeks after planting his first growing beds, he began to see his first set of crops and he never looked back.  Thirty-seven years later, Jeavons and his long-time staff, with the support of his non-profit organization Ecology Action, has trained hundreds of interns and teachers from about 30 different countries, and there are now an estimated 7 million biointensive farmers around the world, as well as numerous indigenous training centers.  Over the years there have also been hundreds of seminars and workshops at the Willits farm and elsewhere, and Jeavons has made countless Power Point presentations across the U.S., and in several foreign countries.  The headquarters farm, along with a satellite farm nearby, is still active.  

Jeavons’ system is based on using multiples of 100 square-foot growing beds (typically 5x20 feet or 4x25).  Each one of these is carefully worked with a technique called “double-digging,” using tools like a D-handled spade and digging fork to prepare the topsoil and loosen the subsoil down to 24-inches, so that the plant roots -- as well as air, water, and beneficial microbes -- can grow much deeper. The plants also benefit by creating their own micro-climate when they are growing close together.  With an investment of about 30 hours of labor per week, it is possible to produce enough food with Jeavons’ system to provide a complete, diversified diet on about 4,000 square feet of growing area (or 40 beds) – compared with the standard U.S. agricultural requirement of more than 100,000 square feet.  And it can be sustainable for the long term. 

Over the years, Jeavons has also done meticulous research and experimentation, along with careful record-keeping, which is distilled in his legendary book How to Grow More Vegetables. (The book’s quirky but memorable subtitle is “(and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land with Less Water Than You Can Imagine.”)  Now in its ninth edition, Jeavons’ biointensive bible has sold more than 600,000 copies in eight languages – a phenomenal number for a gardening book. It has long since become an indispensable handbook and reference source for biointensive farmers, and many others as well.  I know, because our family developed and operated a 16-acre biointensive market farm on San Juan Island, Washington for a nearly a decade in the early 2000s as a post-retirement venture (with the help of a staff and many interns over the years, of course). 

In theory, the biointensive farming system could feed the entire world, including especially the estimated 1 billion people who are currently undernourished or malnourished.  More importantly, it could diversify our global food production (it’s readily adaptable to varying climates and soils), and it could help us to cope with the growing number of challenges to our vulnerable commercial farming system.  Modern, high-tech industrial agriculture depends on huge inputs of capital, technology, low-cost fossil fuels, agricultural chemicals of various kinds, vast quantities of good topsoil, and an abundance of low-cost fresh water. (Some 70 percent of all the water consumed by humans currently goes toward irrigating our crops.)  Not to mention having a stable growing environment and commodity markets with reasonably stable prices.  All of these things and more are increasingly threatened as we go forward in this century.  

Start with global warming.  Seventeen of the past nineteen years have been the hottest on record, 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher on average than at the start of the 19th century.  If this trend continues, it will cause ever-increasing mischief to our agricultural systems.   The disappearance of mountain glaciers and winter snow packs, a process already well underway, will drastically reduce vital river runoff and with it the water resources that two-thirds of the human species depends on for farming and other needs. Heat waves will also decimate livestock and our crops.  For instance, the months-long heat wave in western Russia in 2010 destroyed 40% of that country’s grain crops and led to a temporary tripling of world grain prices.  Several European countries also experienced crop losses from the prolonged drought and heat wave in the summer of 2018. 

Our commercial food crops are also very fragile. One study by an international research institute found that for every degree Celsius above the nominal average growing temperature there is a 10% decline in the yields of wheat, rice, and corn. Another study, in India, found that a 2-degree Celsius increase reduced wheat yields in different locations by 37-58%. Especially troubling is the recent discovery that increasing atmospheric CO2 levels reduces the nutritional value of rice, the main staple food for 2 billion people.  More frequent and destructive droughts, storms, and wild fires – a trend already well advanced -- will also disrupt food production in many ways and cause many trillions of dollars in damage over time.  Ocean warming and acidification (not to mention the effects of pollution) will severely harm the ocean food chain and threaten what is now about 17% of the protein supply for humankind, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.  Most of the world’s fisheries have already been maxed out and some are in steep decline. 

 We are also running a serious deficit in the rate of water consumption.  Most disturbing is the rapid draw-down of underground aquifers around the world.  Some of them can be recharged over time, but many others cannot. According to a 2005 U.N. study, at least 15 major countries with half the world’s population – including the U.S., China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Mexico and several Middle Eastern countries – are running large water deficits and their water tables are rapidly declining. A more recent NASA study, using satellite data, indicated that 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are seriously depleted.  For instance, the huge Ogallala aquifer that spans portions of eight states in the American southwest and provides irrigation water for some 27% of U.S agricultural production, may be drained by 2028, according to a recent estimate. Even more alarming, a new government report in India concluded that 600 million of its people even now face extreme water scarcity, with 200,000 dying each year from unsafe or insufficient water. By 2030, the report estimated that the country’s total demand will be twice the available supply.

 Loss of topsoil is another major problem. A U.N. study in 2015 estimated that, at the rate our vital topsoil is currently declining, one-third of the world’s total will be gone within the next 100 years.  Other estimates put the percentage even higher and the time-frame much sooner. There are many causes – deforestation, soil erosion, dust storms, salt build up in irrigated soils, overuse of agricultural pesticides and other chemicals, droughts, the over-grazing of grasslands, and the conversion of farmland to housing and commercial uses.  Even in the areas where the soil is not severely degraded, its productivity is being undermined in many cases by modern agricultural practices that destroy the vital organisms in the soil – symbiotic bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, and the all-important worms, not to mention depleting essential minerals.  As President Franklin Roosevelt put it in a 1937 speech, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”  

So why does the world have only 7 million biointensive farmers?  Why not 70 million, or 700 million?  At the very least they could feed many of the 1 billion people who do not have enough food even now.  They could provide a life-and-death food insurance policy for an increasingly hungry world.  They could also diversify our food production efforts and spread the risks.  And, not least, they would use our increasingly threatened agricultural resource base much more efficiently and sustainably. The answer to these “why” questions can be boiled down to three words – technology, economics, and poverty – and politics, of course.  

Technology has been a driver for the rise of civilization in many different ways, and this is especially true with food production. One early horticulturalist could support about five people.  In the U.S. in the 1930s, with the advantages of motorized tractors, disc plows, mechanical seeders, mowing machines, trucks, and more, an American farmer could feed about 10 people. Today, armed with much more powerful tractors, greatly improved plows, seed drills, combines, mechanical harvesting equipment, improved seed varieties, GPS satellite data, robots, and many other developments, one American farmer can feed about 100 people.  

But if modern industrial agriculture has become vastly more efficient in terms of labor inputs, it is very inefficient in the use of land, water, and fossil fuels, not to mention being a major source of CO2 emissions.  For example, an onion that is grown using conventional, mechanized farming methods returns only about 90 percent of the energy required to produce it. With the biointensive system, the energy returns are over 40 times greater.  In a capitalist market economy, production costs, especially labor costs, are all-important in determining the prices that consumers must pay. Any adverse consequences for the soil, the water supply, or the atmosphere, are treated as “externalities” and don’t affect the prices – unless, of course, they are regulated and the cost of mitigating them is “internalized.”

In contrast, the biointensive system is highly efficient in the use of land, water, fossil fuels, even capital costs, but it is also very labor intensive compared to industrial agriculture.  The average American consumer spends about 10 percent of his/her income on food these days, compared with close to 50 percent back in 1900, due to the efficiency of our modern agricultural system. That’s the equivalent of about 4 hours out of a 40-hour work week.  Compare this to the many hours that a biointensive farmer must spend producing a subsistence diet (30 hours, or somewhat less with recent improvements). 

A biointensive farmer cannot generate enough sales volume at current market prices to recover his/her labor costs and make a profit – except with some high-value specialty crops.   This has been a major deterrent, and it is a principal reason why the biointensive method has been most successful with subsistence farms in various countries, or as a source of healthy food and extra income for people who have an off-the-farm job.  Or with retirees!  Where it can be especially helpful is with the many people who are living in more or less severe poverty, amounting to about 15 percent of the population in this country and even higher percentages in many other countries.  Being able to reliably grow your own food on a small plot can literally be a life-saver.      

However, poverty also represents a major obstacle to expanding biointensive food production.  The system is relatively inexpensive, but it still requires land, and water, and seeds, and starter compost, and soil amendments, and tools, and related equipment like water hoses, shade cloths, and plastic covers for cold weather, not to mention training.  It’s a very knowledge-intensive system.  To create 10 million new biointensive farms with a front-end investment of, say, $200 each, the total cost could be $2 billion. Needless to say, the agricultural development programs at the United Nations, as well as in individual countries and private foundations, have overwhelmingly favored the cost efficiencies and productivity of conventional agriculture. 

Food politics poses yet another obstacle. Jeavons and his many supporters favor open pollinated seeds and seed saving, contrary to the big seed companies. They oppose the use of Roundup and other toxic chemicals, in conflict with major chemical companies.  And they distrust the new GMO plant seeds being developed in various laboratories.  They even disparage our profligate meat-eating habits (and the cattle industry) as a wasteful use of fragile pasture land and a major source of methane – an especially potent greenhouse gas.  Jeavons is obviously not welcome in some agribusiness circles or agricultural funding agencies. 

However, it is becoming ever-more likely that we will eventually (and maybe much sooner) experience a tectonic shift in the economics of food production as the combination of climate disruption and resource depletion begins to wreak havoc.   As we learned in Economics 101, scarcity tends to drive up prices until there is a new “equilibrium” point where the demand and supply curves intersect.  In this case, though, we’re not talking about the price of “widgets” but about a commodity that has life and death consequences.  Economic inflation is how the middle class becomes poor and how the poor starve to death. 

This, in a nutshell, is the looming crisis that we will soon be facing in our global agricultural system – scarcities and skyrocketing prices.  The number of hungry people around the world will increase rapidly as the cost of purchasing food rises in multiples from the present levels.  And we will also very likely see many more examples of what is currently happening in Venezuela – hyperinflation that makes food unaffordable for a large swath of the population.  The risk of mass-hunger and serious social conflict in many countries is very high. (In the U.S., for instance, a 2017 survey found that less than half of the population has even $1,000 saved up for emergencies and 39% have nothing at all.) 

So, there is an urgent need to begin preparing now for a much more challenging, and more costly agricultural future.  We need a new strategy for global food security. The tools that are available to us are two very different agricultural systems with different strengths and weaknesses, and this suggests using a two-pronged approach. 

One element would consist of adapting and strengthening our industrial farming system, beyond what is already being done in various ways.  Additional resources should be provided to help large-scale commercial farms become more sustainable -- shifting more of them over to no-till agriculture, installing low-flow drip irrigation systems, converting to organic food production, and developing new drought and heat-tolerant crops.  These things and more are detailed in earth scientist David Montgomery’s new book Growing a Revolution.  

Even more urgent is the need to create and maintain vast stores of emergency food.  In 2017, it was estimated that world food reserves amounted to only a 74-day supply.  This would not be enough even to survive something like a “year without a summer” following another major volcano eruption and a world-wide dust cloud like the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, much less coping with multiple, sustained regional droughts, heat waves, and flooding disasters.  The profit-driven private sector will need incentives, and subsidies, to build and maintain much larger food reserves. 

 The second element of our new food security strategy should be a massive global effort to expand the number of small biointensive farms.  (A recent U.N. study found that three-quarters of all the world’s existing farms are already small -- under 2.5 acres -- and locally-oriented. Large-scale market farms are largely devoted to feeding the developed countries, and their livestock – and their automotive gas tanks with ethanol.) As noted earlier, an initiative to create more biointensive farms would serve in part to diversify our food production system and create an insurance policy. It would spread the risks and help create the capacity to cope with the inevitable shortages that lie ahead. Not least, it could help to feed those who are already suffering from hunger and malnutrition. 

Accordingly, it should become a priority for the global community to find the money to create at least 200 million more low-cost, biointensive “mini-farms” around the world over the next decade or so.  Yes, it might cost $40 billion, but that’s a fraction of our $700 billion annual defense budget.  Total global military spending amounts to about $1.7 trillion a year. To use that old cliché, turning some of our guns into butter would contribute significantly to international security, and it would be money well spent.  

The millions of new biointensive farms might employ as many as 500 million people and produce enough food to sustain the farmers and their families, as well as many others.  In the context of much higher global food prices, the biointensive system would also become more price competitive with industrial agriculture and could relieve some of the upward price pressures in the global commodities markets.  Even urban parks, back yards, and some apartment roof tops can accommodate biointensive growing beds.

A graphic prepared by John Jeavons shows that one acre of farmland can be used either to support one cow, or to produce 40 gallons of ethanol for gas tanks, or to feed as many as 20 people plus food for the soil (compost) using biointensive farming.  The choice is up to us. 



About Dr. Peter A. Corning

Dr. Peter A. Corning is currently the director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, WA.  He was a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University. From 2004 to 2017 he was also the co-owner of Synergy Farm on San Juan Island, WA.  In addition to some 200 professional papers, he has published seven books.  This article was derived from his forthcoming new book, THE SUPERORGANISM: A New Social Contract for a Species in Peril.  John Jeavons served as a consultant for this article.  


Comments Join The Discussion