Friday, October 28, 2011

Soil: Exporting our Nutrients versus Biointensive Agriculture

It is not often that I request to cross-post another article here on this site, but today I am doing so (and Nourishing the Planet graciously gave me permission) because I think that this article really deserves to be read more widely. Note that emphasis in red is mine and the subject Jake Blem speaks about is the reason I become so upset about our U.S. corn ethanol program and worse, the exporting of corn ethanol.——K.M.

Saving Our Soil to Feed the World: An Interview with Jake Blem

Nourishing the Planet
By Emily Gilbert

What is biointensive agriculture?

While not as large a universe as “sustainable agriculture”, there are many different views on biointensive agriculture. At Ecology Action, our Grow Biointensive program focuses on the concept of intensive mini-farming. However, it ultimately comes down to the fact that biointensive farming is really the process of preparing the soil. By using biointensive techniques successfully, we’re able restore soil sixty times faster than rates found in nature, all while producing two to four times the amount of food as conventional agriculture in a given plot.

Biointensive agriculture, in its different forms, has been around for thousands of years. The Chinese were using these techniques several thousand years ago. The form we see today was developed by Alan Chadwick , who first introduced the modern biointensive method to the U.S. in the mid 1960s, and it’s really exciting to see the different projects and initiatives that continue to evolve.

How is biointensive agriculture different from organic agriculture?

There are estimates that in 20 to 30 years, 2 billion people will be without access to potable water. Compared to conventional agriculture and even different forms of organic agriculture, biointensive is incredibly successful at improving water retention in soils, and creating soils that need less of it.

In my opinion, even organic producers are struggling to adequately protect their soils. Globally it’s estimated that we’ve lost about a third of our topsoil in the past 40 years. Frankly, we just cannot afford that loss. Biointensive agriculture has the ability to protect and strengthen soil, rather than depleting it. For farmers living in marginal areas, this ability provides a huge boon for both food and economic security.

What have been historical impediments to more wide-spread adoption of biointensive agriculture?

A friend recently recommended a book called Empires of Food by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas. It’s absolutely fascinating. It’s a detailed account of the interactions ancients civilizations had surrounding food. Thousands of years ago, there was a “global” food trade in the Mediterranean. And like today, you end up seeing the same issues and mistakes repeated over the centuries. Politicians in ancient Rome, like modern politicians, were struggling with soil erosion and ways to feed their populations. You end up seeing the most significant damage when societies begin exporting their nutrients through trade.

Exporting their nutrients? What do you mean by that?

Societies back then, just like today, were exporting the bulk of their food to outside areas. So instead of allowing nature’s normal nutrient cycling systems to occur, all the energy stored in these crops is sent to other areas instead of being cycled back into the soil. We end up seeing a net loss in soil nutrients.

Is there any indication that policy-makers’ attitudes are changing about biointensive agriculture?

Politics in the U.S. is so dependent on lobbying and special-interest pressure, that it’s hard to imagine any profound changes occurring in agricultural policy anytime soon. So, on a national level, no. This is disheartening because it’s on the federal level that we see most of the money and large grants. However, I’ve seen some really promising changes and attitudes on the local level. Obviously, local governments don’t hand out subsidies, so there isn’t that outside pressure. Some examples of really great local movements are in the Hudson River Valley in New York, and even my hometown of Sonoma County.

On the state level, I’ve seen some great work by former Pennsylvania State Representative David Kessler. He helped draft legislation supporting organic agriculture and small farmers. He also helped develop a half million dollar program to help farmers monitor nitrogen and nutrient loading into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

Would you like to share any new developments happening at Ecology Action?

Ecology Action has been in East Africa over 20 years, primarily in Kenya. What’s been exciting is seeing the increase in interest in our programs over the past several years. We’ve started a partnership with an organization working in Rwanda on HIV/AIDS issues. What they’ve found is that patients are not receiving the full benefit of the antiretroviral drugs because they’re diets are so lacking in vital nutrients.

We have also been hosting a man from a faith-based organization in Malawi that is working on hunger and food security issues. He’s just finishing up his three month stay now.

Beyond that, we’ve begun expanding programs in East Asia, particularly the Mekong Delta region and the Himalayas. Given the onslaught of climate change and the crucial role water systems play in these areas, we’re really excited to give these farmers soils that have better water retention and ultimately need less of it.


Bio: Jake Blehm first became interested in sustainable and organic agriculture more than 25 years ago. This interest led him to start his own bio-control and consulting business, helping farmers transition from conventional agricultural practices to organic. As a result, Blehm’s clients achieved a 90 percent reduction in pesticide use in the first 2 years. Jake sold his business to eventually join the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. The Rodale Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of organic agriculture through research and outreach. Through his work with Rodale, he began realizing that even organic producers were struggling with issues of soil erosion. Spurred by the presentations and work of John Jeavons, a pioneer in biointensive agriculture and the founder of Ecology Action, and a desire to return to California, Jake joined Ecology Action in 2010, serving as the Assistant Executive Director.

Location: Willits, California

Affiliation: Assistant Executive Director, Ecology Action