Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Jason McNabb
Since 1972, Ecology Action has been helping people worldwide empower themselves to better their health and to regenerate the soil that feeds them. Through teaching and demonstrating the GROW BIOINTENSIVE® food-growing method, Ecology Action serves as one of the oldest long-term sustainable agriculture projects in the world. Founded in Palo Alto, CA, Ecology Action was born out of a widespread need: an increasing number of people and communities worldwide are unable to produce or acquire adequate food to satisfy their caloric and nutritional needs. The agricultural techniques being employed today are detrimental to the long-term productivity of the land and require high, often prohibitive costs and finite natural resources.
We chose to address this need from a sustainability perspective, which represents a departure from many program models that address calorie deficits by subsidizing surpluses of food that are subsidize surpluses that are grown using resource- and energy-intensive practices. These practices are quickly depleting thousands of years’ worth of farmable soil, a finite resource. The question Ecology Action asks is how to satisfy nutritional and environmental needs, allowing everyone to live well while passing on fertile soil and opportunity to the next generation. The solution, it appeared, had to include the following characteristics:
- A basic knowledge of how to achieve healthy, living farmable soil and adequate water, both of which are steadily decreasing per person worldwide.
- A consideration of finite resources of nutrients and energy.
- Universally-applicable scientific principles that could be used anywhere.
- Documentation of our findings so that others could use the knowledge we had gathered.
The Solution for Sustainability
We eventually developed the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method, a system of eight simple food-growing practices capable of building and maintaining fully sustainable soil fertility, growing more food on smaller areas of land, and using dramatically fewer resources. The method incorporates traditional farming methods through the use of such techniques as composting, companion planting, open-pollinated seeds, and double-dug beds. These techniques increase yield while at the same time decreasing water, energy, fertilizer, and land use, and they offer calorie-sufficient foods for the farmer while feeding necessary nutrients back into the soil. This is especially useful for areas of the world that must work with dry, arid climates and depleted soil conditions, but how to communicate this information while acknowledging that those most in need tend to have limited access to technology? The most effective way of personally reaching the most people was to train teachers in the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method so that they could disseminate the knowledge to their home countries. We developed an internship program whereby candidates with a desire to affect change are invited to Ecology Action’s research and demonstration farm in Willits, CA in order to learn both the system of food growing and the method of effectively teaching it. In order to ensure the quality of our teachers, we also created a teacher certification program.
Local Action for a Livable World
Our approach is community-driven but garners global results. Over 20 million people in 151 countries have directly or indirectly received instruction through our various education and outreach initiatives and are able to use the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method in their home countries, despite possible lack of resources. Ecology Action’s present focus is on creating regional training centers around the world that will allow for local adaptations to the method and easy access to training. It has always been Ecology Action’s belief that the requirements for sustainable health and nutrition can be part of a lifestyle that satisfies the needs of all people, in both rural and industrialized areas of the world. Many developing and third-world countries are ahead of first-world nations in this aspect. These cultures need little adaptation beyond addressing sustainability and resources in their region, and a sustainable food-growing method can help them achieve such a balanced lifestyle. The challenge truly lies with the developed world whose lifestyles require larger adjustments to sustainably satisfy their most fundamental needs. By maintaining our focus on research and education, we have been able to empower others to take up these ancient methods and support themselves for a livable future.
Jason McNabb worked for six years as an engineering consultant to low-to-net-zero-energy buildings before realizing that true human sustainability begins the soil’s ability to provide the calorie and nutritional needs for human culture. He began using GROW BIOINTENSIVE practices to grow grains and vegetables two years ago and is currently the Office Manager at Ecology Action. John Jeavons is the Executive Director of the globally active nonprofit Ecology Action in Willits, CA. He is a leader in the field of biologically intensive agriculture based on systems used successfully for millennia. His focus for the future is to encourage the creation of centers using this resilient, soil building, resource-conserving “local on a global scale” farming.