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The World Situation and Our Agricultural Crisis
by Matt Drewno, VGFP Mini-Farm/Seedbank Manager

There are many reasons to be alarmed. While industrialized agriculture increases production, it comes at great cost to people and planet. Not only is the industrialized approach destroying our communities and biosphere, it is not economically sustainable either. In the United States, the USDA reported in 2019 that farmers had to earn 83% of their income off the farm. In 2020, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue addressed the rising suicide rate in farming families across the Midwest stating, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”

The problem is much larger than agriculture, it is in fact systemic. A transition is needed to a more compassionate, equitable and actionable vision for human society. In the meantime, the food and farming crisis will continue as long as we have inequity. What does inequity look like? In the US, it was reported in 2020 that the top 1% of households own 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50% combined. As this wealth gap increases, so will our food crisis. The problem is not only how we farm, it is also an issue of access to affordable, healthy food.

Food aid and welfare programs have become the only hope for many struggling families. The anti-hunger organization Feeding America reported 1 in 4 children (also 1 in 6 families) in the United States are now facing food insecurity, and there has been a 60% increase in food bank users from 2019-2020. In November of 2020, The UN World Food Program reported an 82% increase in acute food insecurity globally in a one-year period.

A perfect storm is a rare occasion where multiple factors converge at once to release a tremendous amount of energy. As more people are born to a finite planet suffering the effects of resource consumption, pollution, environmental degradation and climate change, the storm we face builds in its strength and potential. As food insecurity and ecosystem pressures continue to increase can expect an increase in political and social instability, fighting over resources, and mass migrations. In fact, this is already happening. At the end of 2019, it was reported that 79.5 million people around the world had been forcibly displaced and that 80% of these families had fled their homes due to food insecurity.

Did you know that after the global financial collapse in 2008, the New York Times reported 29 countries halted the exportation of food. Global food prices then increased 45%, with staples like wheat increasing by 130%. The financial crisis raised the price of fossil fuels resulting in a doubling in the cost of Nitrogen fertilizers leading many farmers to only cultivate half of their land. Stressors like this are interrelated and compounding. Perhaps most alarming is that never before in history have so many people been so reliant upon such a fragile and unsustainable food system. Maybe it is time to deconsolidate our food system and incentivize more sustainable, local food production? And with so many unable to afford food, shouldn’t we start with them by granting access to the resources required to grow one’s own food sustainably? Food security should be considered a human right, not something we fight over or pay for. A sustainable community gardening effort can help the shift towards healthier and more peaceful communities.

To more fully comprehend this perfect storm, here are a few additional facts:

  • Currently, over 800 million people (around 1 out of 10) face starvation; • By 2050, the UN states an additional 2-3 billion people will need to be fed;
  • By 2030, the UN estimates that almost half of the global population will be living under high water stress potentially lacking adequate water resources to grow their food;
  • Today in the US, 80-90% of our freshwater is used for agriculture;
  • In 2015, the UN stated we have less than 60 years of soil remaining and that by 2050 we will have to increase farm production by 70% to feed everyone equitably;
  • Each year we need an additional 12 million acres of farmable soil at our current growth rate yet we lose 30 million acres annually to wind and water erosion. In Nature, it can take 500-2000 years to build 1 inch of topsoil.

It should be noted that the UN’s 2015 estimate of 60 years of topsoil remaining is at current rates of soil depletion. As ecosystems become increasingly degraded the rate of their collapse accelerates. At Ecology Action we estimate that we have closer to 20 years of farmable soil remaining. Our soil ecosystem is the basis for our food production, prosperity and our health.

Our current food system based on technological and fossil fuel-driven methods of agriculture is already failing us. Sustainability is not just about a more ecological way to grow food, it is also about equality, social justice, ecology, and resource conservation. It is about creating a peaceful and livable biosphere. It is about giving future generations a chance to move forward as times become more challenging and as our ecologies and climate become more fragile.

Difficult times can bring out the best or the worst in people. A perfect storm doesn’t have to be destructive; its energy can be channeled into something creative and powerful. These challenges can bring us together or tear us apart. It is up to us. After all, what could be more fun, challenging and exciting? In a recent 8-month internship class, I heard John Jeavons say that we cannot change our externals, but in changing our internals everything around us changes.

As we become clearer-minded and we see that we already have the tools to create this better future and we can begin. The GROW BIOINTENSIVE® (GB) Method can help communities create a better future by focusing on one powerful thing that each of us can do, right now: grow a beautiful, abundant and sustainable garden.

The GB Method has been developed to be used by almost anyone, anywhere. The techniques behind GB have been developed throughout history and by cultures around the world and most notably, the Biodynamic French-Intensive Method taught by Alan Chadwick. Alan Chadwick believed that as individuals breathed life back into the soil, they breathed life back into themselves. He taught that through horticulture we could reconnect with our deeper selves and achieve world peace.

The “best practices” of agriculture are assembled in the GB Method as a whole-systems approach to addressing the challenges we face today. The GB approach enables communities to conserve resources, decrease wastes and pollution, increase efficiency and productivity while also enhancing local ecologies as they grow their own food. This approach is skill-intensive, not labor-intensive. GB helps individuals meet their dietary needs in a sustainable way locally, while also allowing our biosphere to regenerate and heal.  

Biointensive Teachers from around the world at a recent Ecology Action Internship at Victory Gardens for Peace

Moving Forward to Create a Better Future for our Biosphere

In this effort many of us may feel overwhelmed and that we are starting from scratch. Many of us have been taught that the answers are somewhere, out there. We have forgotten how to grow soil and food sustainably. Many of us have been indoctrinated with a competitive attitude leaving us more likely to fight over resources than share them. There are two things that are for sure: (1) We have our work cut out for us, and (2) good things don’t come easy!

To minimize the damage and future suffering, it is important that we act swiftly. Solutions should be considered holistically and the greatest effect sought. We should work with nature in addition to working with each other. First let us establish 5 key facts relating to our current agricultural predicament:

  1. Current economic policies are favoring industrial agriculture, people are being removed from the land and we are losing farming knowledge and skill base;
  2. Climate change is a force-multiplier, compounding challenges to our agricultural systems;
  3. Localization of our food system will be necessary to keep food accessible as global economies and food supply chains are disrupted;
  4. Communities must assess local soil, water, energy and other resources and make choices focused on conservation and ecology;
  5. Populations must reskill in food production and ecological restoration, emphasizing resource conservation, closed-loop sustainability and appropriate technology.  

Bumblebee pollinating a purple flowerThe UNFAO states globally there are 1.6 billion ha (4 billion acres) currently in agricultural production. We have lost the majority of our ecosystems to agriculture and we must reverse this destruction. A recent study concluded that at least 50% of the Earth’s ecosystems need to be restored to prevent further catastrophe from climate change, ecosystem loss and species extinction. Moving forward we must maintain a wholistic vision of the big picture. We must increase yields with less water and with less land, while rebuilding our soils and microscaling our ecological footprints so we can restore our biosphere. Sound impossible? It’s not! 

Projecting Our Options Moving Forward  

A Confounding Variable is a third variable created out of the cause and effect, which feeds back and influences the entire system. In chaos theory, this is similarly expressed as the Butterfly Effect stating that a butterfly flapping its wings in your backyard can create a hurricane on the other side of the Earth. In Buddhist philosophy, this can be expressed as the Doctrine of Interdependent Co-origination. These concepts can help us understand the complexities of our choices and the Feed- Back Loops which can accelerate or otherwise influence a system.  

Our Fateful Choice 

We can continue to miss-manage resources, accelerate our soil loss and compound a global crisis or we can shift towards a simpler whole-systems ecological approach to feed humanity and heal Nature. In light of Leibig’s Law of the Minimum, and considering the confounding variables of water, soil, energy, ecology, climate change, mass migrations etc., we can project the ability for the different approaches to feed our growing population before “maxing-out” in their capacity to effectively feed humanity. At this “maxing out point” represented in the chart below where lines fade, the potential of these agricultural systems begins to decline rapidly. 

We have not considered: the collapse of pollinator species; shifting climate patterns affecting yields; pressures of migrations on social systems; resource valuation increasing the cost of food; pandemics; war/conflict potential; pollution; dietary choices; distribution and access to water; political instability; energy costs and so much more. It is impossible to account for it all. One thing is certain, the longer we wait to micro-scale agriculture and resource use the more difficult we make things for life on Earth now and into the future. This is the very goal of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE Method, a sustainable and rational use of resources to feed humanity and restore the biosphere.  

This article was taken from pages in Ecology Action’s Booklet 38 A Path to Peace and Sustainability: Growing Soil, Food and Seed in As Little As 1,000 Sq. Ft., which you can find in EA’s publications section along with many other key GB resources! 



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