Back to FAQ Home

Yields: The Benefit of
Increased Soil Fertility Over Time

By John Jeavons
Ecology Action


FarmIn these uncertain times of food, water, energy and environmental health concerns one might tend to feel vulnerable, and thus want to stock pile resources. This type of thinking often leads to runs on available resources that can create greater disparities or shortages. Hand in hand with that thinking is maximizing crop yields by any means. The knee-jerk response is to overload growing areas with inputs, many of which actually lead to decreased soil vitality over time. We have a tendency to want fast results rather than slowing down and making the best assessment of what will provide the highest good over time. Lynne Twist, in her seminal work, The Soul of Money addresses the debilitating perception in much of the world culture today of “not having enough.” If we are to truly evolve to a vital, regenerative way of being, which will ensure the longevity of this planet, we have to trust that there is enough time to do the right thing. The following article looks at the disadvantages of a high-yield focus, without first creating a sustainable foundation.

It’s not surprising that we are seeing a parallel phenomenon in the stock market. The emphasis for at least the past 30 years has been on short-term, high-return investments and bottom-line profits without concern for managing businesses based on larger system integrity.  Companies who put workers and environmental concerns before maximum profits were at risk of losing market share to companies with more aggressive strategies for growth. Many of those aggressive strategies discounted the importance of healthy, happy work environments, which establish commitment and provide fertile ground for creativity and product quality. Because of the current market vulnerability, and the potential for losing substantial amounts of their hard-earned money, those who were after the highest returns on their investments are now thinking that an investment with slow, stable growth looks pretty good.

Committing to a sustainable, organic agricultural method like Biointensive Mini-Farming is like investing in long-term “Blue Chip” stocks—you can have greater confidence in sustained performance.  Why? Because if we increase soil fertility, by increasing soil organic matter, the soil will feed us. Regenerating top soil with a healthy balance of microbes takes some time—to be specific you might expect 1/20 of 1% increase in soil organic matter per year. With GROW BIOINTENSIVE® techniques you have the potential to build 1 inch of farmable soil in as little as 8.5 years. As a global average, it would take 500 years to produce this same amount in nature. Building topsoil with the GB method can be done relatively rapidly, but to have the soil organic matter become stable requires much more time. Still, what better investment can we make for future generations?

Also, remember that even in the beginning of the process, under reasonable conditions, you should at least get the equivalent of the US average for your area and soil type. As your soil organic matter and overall fertility improves your yields should significantly increase. Ecology Action’s 37-years of research and observation have proven this out. Information about the importance of having sufficient organic matter in the soil to retain nutrients can also be obtained from the data compiled by Rothamsted in England during their 150 years of agricultural soil research.

On the other hand, if we go only for maximizing yields without properly assessing the long-term effect on soil organic matter and fertility, those high yields will be short lived, as has been the case with Green Revolution technology. The following excerpt from www.i-SIS.org.uk (The Institute of Science in Society) spells it out.

“The Green Revolution packaged specially bred HYVs [High Yielding Varieties] with fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. And given optimum inputs, the HYVs did indeed increase yields dramatically, especially in the short term. In the longer term, the soils become depleted and degraded, and yields fall even as more and more fertilizers are used. Similarly, pests become resistant to pesticides, and greater amounts have to be applied. Farmers and the general public become increasingly at risk from the toxic effects of pesticides and fertilizers that contaminate ground water. At the same time, heavy irrigation results in widespread salination of agricultural lands, while aquifers are pumped dry.

The Green Revolution also led to the loss of crop diversity, compromising food security for small farmers and increasing malnutrition for all. Bangladesh lost nearly 7,000 traditional rice varieties and many fish species. In the Phillipines, more than 300 traditional varieties disappeared.

Introducing further GM monoculture crops will further narrow the genetic base of indigenous agriculture, increase farmers’ indebtedness in paying for patented seeds, and bring extra environmental and health risks.”

Many have heard the saying that anything can be approached either as a crisis or an opportunity. Cuba has been a prime example of a positive response to the crisis of being abruptly cut off from food imports and agricultural inputs, particularly petroleum products. Prior to 1989 they were a model Green Revolution (chemical and fossil fuel dependent) farm economy, but with the collapse of trade with the former Socialist Bloc, and US trade embargos, they were plunged into a food crisis and had to quickly reinvent themselves. Prior to the change in trade relations, Cuba had been viewed as a “successful” example of Green Revolution technology, yet they still relied on the Soviet Bloc for 57 percent of total foods consumed.

When Cuba’s economic picture changed overnight it lost 85 percent of its trade, including both food and agricultural inputs. Without those inputs domestic production fell, resulting in 30 percent reduction in caloric intake in the early 1990s. Cuba was faced with a dual challenge of doubling food production with half the previous inputs.

The way Cuba responded was an inspiration. It began with a nation-wide call to increase food production by restructuring agriculture. It involved converting from conventional large-scale, high input monoculture systems to smaller scale, organic and semi-organic farming systems. The focus was on using low cost and environmentally safe inputs, and relocating production closer to consumption in order to cut down on transportation costs. By 1994, a large number of Havana residents were involved in food production. The majority of these urban growers had little or no access to much needed agricultural inputs—seeds, tools, pest controls, soil amendments. Nor did they have knowledge about the small-scale, agro-ecological techniques that urban gardening requires. The Cuban Ministry of Agriculture responded to people’s need for information and agricultural inputs by creating an Urban Agriculture Department in Havana. The Department’s goal was to put all of the city’s open land into cultivation and provide a wide range of extension services and resources such as agricultural specialists, short courses, seed banks, biological controls, compost, and tools. The Department secured land use rights for all urban growers by adapting city laws to gain legal rights for food production on unused land. Hundreds of vacant lots, public and private, were officially sanctioned as gardens and farms. In some cases land ownership titles have been accorded, but in most instances land has been, and continues to be, handed over usufruct, a planning concept which grants free and indefinite right to use public land for gardening.

By 1997 Cubans were eating almost as well as they did before 1989, with little food and agrochemicals imported. In 2002, 35,000 acres (140 km2) of urban gardens produced 3.4 million tons of food. In Havana, 90% of the city’s fresh produce came from local urban farms and gardens. As of 2004, about 30% of Havana’s available land is under cultivation and there are more than 30,000 people growing food on more than 8,000 farms and gardens in Havana alone. The size and structure of these urban farms and gardens varies considerably. There are small backyard and individual gardens cultivated privately by urban residents. Front lawns of municipal buildings were dug up to grow vegetables. Offices and schools cultivated their own food. There are small family-run farms and there are farms owned and operated by the State with varying degrees of profit sharing with workers.

Although competition for land use in Havana has intensified, new planning laws place the highest land use priority on food production. Unlike anywhere else in the world, in Cuba, deregulation of prices, combined with high demand for fresh produce, has allowed urban farmers to earn more money than many of Havana’s professionals.

Cuba didn’t come up with the concept of urban agriculture. It has existed for millennia. Community wastes were used in ancient Persia to feed urban farming. In Machu Picchu water was conserved and reused as part of the stepped architecture of the city and vegetable beds were designed to gather sun in order to prolong the growing season. The Mayans grew their food on a neighborhood basis with biologically intensive practices. Japan and China both have long histories of mixing agricultural activities within urban settings. According to Wikipedia, 800 million people are involved in urban agriculture world-wide and contribute to feeding urban residents. What does make Cuba a particularly compelling case study is the effectiveness of largely organic, small-scale urban agriculture for both emergency response and ongoing, vital community development. They couldn’t default to using chemical agricultural inputs for immediate high returns. They simply had to commit to a consolidated effort that over time would provide them with food security.  While they haven’t achieved total self sufficiency, their efforts have resulted in a wonderfully inspiring model for addressing food shortages, and ultimately increasing overall nutrition.

While we know that organic, urban agriculture has been tremendously beneficial in increasing food security in Cuba, we would love to see the data on fertility and soil organic matter. Ecology Action’s objective is to achieve good yields up front while keeping an eye on soil organic matter and fertility. Even good organic practices can deplete the soil if the focus is only on high yields, without the proper nutrient-return practices.

Ecology Action represents a vision similar to Cuba’s of serving as resource hub for an empowered citizenry who are taking up their shovels and digging into the opportunities for long-term sustainability.

Browse this site for more information about our research, training and educational opportunities, and partner projects, and also visit our other sites: johnjeavons.info, commongroundgarden.org, bountifulgardens.org.

Credit is also given to Raquel Rivera Pinderhughes, Professor of Urban Studies at San Francisco State University for much of the information related to Cuba, which was drawn from her article, Urban Agriculture in Havana, Cuba, August 2000 (last updated 2005).

© John Jeavons, Ecology Action, March 2009


Click here to become a member or to donate to Ecology Action online!