SUSTAINABLE AND ORGANIC: Two Words Everyone Who Eats Should Know, Part 2 of 2

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
– ancient Native American proverb by Canada’s Haida nation
from the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia
ENTERING THE GARDEN. “Please don’t walk on the beds” says the sign at Ecology Action’s Common Ground Biointensive Research Mini-Farm in Willits, California.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to live sustainably? Why is this one of the most important questions facing humanity at this point in history? Last week, we defined living sustainably in two ways: “giving back what you take from the Earth, and then some” and adopting practices that could be carried on indefinitely in their current form.

We are living in one of the most unsustainable societies that has ever existed, polluting the air faster than our disappearing forests can clean it. Organic and non-organic agriculture are destroying topsoil that John Jeavons, director of Ecology Action, estimates we may have as few as 40 years of topsoil left. Carbon greenhouse gas from fossil fuels have reached such an alarming rate that global temperatures are rising towards dangerous levels; air pollution particulates are blocking sunlight effecting rain, droughts, and food security; and experts predict global demand for oil will outstrip supply as soon as next year. This way of life cannot continue for much longer. How do we begin to reverse the damage that is already done? How do we begin, as individuals, communities, and societies, to live sustainably so that all of us can survive and thrive in health and harmony? What we need are models of sustainability in action leading the way. We also need creativity and the free exchange of ideas as we begin to visualize what creating a sustainable future looks like.

Just a little over 100 years ago, almost all people in the U.S. lived on a farm or homestead. Imagine knowing the entire history of the last meal you ate beginning with seed saved through the winter, nurtured into baby seedlings, then the first exciting harvest transformed by a special family recipe, and finally delicious smells and tastes shared with loved ones. Also imagine how much more we would appreciate household goods made by the hands of family and friends and made of materials grown in our own neighborhood. Imagine how much more we as a society would take great steps to care for the Earth, conscious of where things and life come from. We can reclaim and redefine this sacred connection in a new vision of a sustainable future.

ROSE CREATING A RIVER. Hanging out in the path between two sloped beds planted with yarrow to protect against erosion.


As we established last week, organic farming is far better for the environment, animals, and human health than chemical farming. However, organic farming as it is widely practiced still relies on non-renewable, polluting fossil fuels to distribute inputs & outputs and power tractors. We need to ensure one of our most valuable resources, topsoil, is not only preserved but built up for future generations. This means that food-raising will have to become decentralized, localized, and non-mechanized. Many more farmers or mini-farmers will be needed.

Right now, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, or 6 million people, work on farms. In the post-oil era, Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over, estimates that 50 million farmers will be needed to meet our food needs. Farmer Sharon Astyk places the figure at closer to 100 million. Sharon writes: “I picked 100 million, rather than 50 million (a figure I considered) because while 50 million represents somewhere between 25 and 30% of the fully employed adults in the work world in America, agriculture is something that doesn’t actually work in the same ways as traditional employment. That is, when one member of a family farms, everyone farms.”

No matter what the estimate, the majority of people worldwide including the U.S. will have to become involved in the joy of food-raising. A method will be needed where large amounts of food can be raised in small areas like lawns, balconies, and vacant lots so those who do not have a “farm” will be able to supply their families with enough food. It would need to be independent of heavy machinery, done by hand with simple tools and yet not back-breaking. A method that’s simple to understand, and yet based on a system that returns what it takes from the Earth while growing topsoil.

Miraculously, such a method exists called Biointensive mini-farming and gardening which may well be the sustainable solution for growing food in the coming years. Detailed in the book How To Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons, Biointensive developed from Chinese-French Intensive and Biodynamic techniques with roots dating back 4,000 years in ancient Chinese, Mayan, and Greek methods. The 8 Step GROW BIOINTENSIVE Food-Raising Method is now practiced and taught in over 130 countries.

ECOLOGY ACTION’S COMMON GROUND MINI-FARM. John Jeavons leads a 3-Day Workshop Tour overlooking the mini-farm’s Biointensive double-dug raised beds and the beautiful valley in Willits, California.

Our first experience with Biointensive occurred last year at the farm in Wisconsin. The joy of working the soil by hand was immediate, and among the rewards that we reaped from our small plot included the most delicious cucumbers and celery we had ever tasted. Aireen doesn’t even like cucumbers, but she loved the ones we grew biointensively!

Biointensive’s gentle double-digging deeply aerates soil without destroying beneficial microbes, earthworms, and soil structure. An intensive, hexagonal planting in beds rather than rows creates a microclimate that shades the soil, holds in moisture, keeps temperatures stable, and protects the soil from erosion while maximizing space. Plants are able to grow deep roots with access to nutrients and moisture. Crops are grown for compost and incorporated with greens like kitchen scraps in specific ratios to return nutrients and organic matter to the soil with the potential to build topsoil up to 60 times faster than in nature. Potential yields are up to four times higher than mechanized agricultural methods.

In the future, the necessity for backyard gardeners, city-dwellers, and country homesteaders to learn sustainable food-raising methods will be part of a new sustainable vision. You’ve heard of computer literacy? Humanity’s future depends on what John Jeavons calls farming literacy. Other methods include Fukuoka no-till natural farming; Permaculture, which focuses on the planting of perennial crops (crops that grow back year after year), rainwater catchment, and energy-saving design principles; and traditional indigenous systems. One popular Native American technique is called Three Sisters. Beans are planted to vine up tall corn stalks, while broad and prickly squash leaves shade and protect the ground around the other “sisters”, the corn and beans.

Everything from food production to distribution, manufacturing to the packaging of goods, our transportation industry, and the way we power our homes relies on natural gas, coal, and petroleum. Many everyday products contain petroleum-based ingredients such as plastics, polyester, computers, appliances, and parabens in cosmetics. The average piece of food purchased at the store has travelled 1,000 to 1,500 miles before reaching your plate.

According to a 1997 study by the Energy Information Administration, transportation alone (especially airplanes) pumps an estimated 450 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Highest is industry emitting over 600 million metric tons of CO2 through coal, natural gas, and petroleum use – 33 percent of all greenhouse gases. Transportation accounts for close to 25 percent, residential power equals 17 percent or 300 million metric tons, followed by commercial energy use at 16 percent or 280 million metric tons, and last but not least, agriculture at around 7 percent or 120 million metric tons of CO2.

Lasting solutions are still developing, such as significant government-imposed environmental standards. Hybrid vehicles, which get 33 to 49 miles per gallon (mpg) compared to a 2006 average of 24.6 mpg for compact cars and 18.5 mpg for SUVs, have an impact. Cars and trucks converted to run on waste vegetable oil and biodiesel, fuel made from a mixture of petroleum and vegetable oil, are empowering alternatives that do not directly contribute to CO2 greenhouse emissions. But because of high energy inefficiency, continued particulate pollution, and wasted cropland to produce the biofuels, they are at best a transitional technology. For example, it has been noted that the amount of corn converted into ethanol that it takes to fill one SUV tank is enough corn to feed a person for one year. For industrial, residential, and commercial buildings, renewable alternatives like solar and wind power are gaining popularity, both for their energy and money-saving benefits. Renewable energy can help us to become sustainable as more people embrace these technologies. Individuals, communities, and businesses all across the United States and the world are getting “off the grid”. In cities like Los Angeles, any household still “on the grid” can choose wind or solar-powered energy from their electrical company.

A magic bullet technology does not currently exist, and we may not have the time to wait around for one to be discovered, but there are two time-tested “technologies” that do make a HUGE difference: reducing consumption and going local. It’s up to us, as consumers and responsible citizens of the Earth, to cultivate habits and lifestyles to improve the quality of our air, water, topsoil, and health. A growing movement called Relocaliztion, which we will explore in a future column, is walking the walk, community by community, toward a less fossil fuel dependent and more energy, food, and economy independent future.


Living sustainably means living simply and naturally. You don’t have to give up all worldly possessions and live like an ascetic; the key is to make more creative and less wasteful use of what we have while letting go of what we don’t need. It can mean buying in bulk to reduce the waste of packaging and reusing jars and other containers rather than throwing them away. Or composting food scraps to grow healthy soil and delicious food. Giving old clothes and stuff you don’t use to charities or friends, or bartering for something you need. It can be as simple as turning off the lights and T.V. more often in favor of candlelight dinners and family story time. It can also mean becoming a green consumer, going for products such as energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances. Buying recycled products like paper, tissue, and napkins (or better yet, use cloth), and buying from companies that have a proven commitment to sustainability can help reduce waste and cut consumption while sending a message to corporations that environmental responsibility is top on the list of consumer demands. If you’re crafty or just enjoy making stuff, you can learn how to make your own candles, clothes, greeting cards, paper, or reuse old items for new purposes. Reducing travel and opting for more bicycle and walking trips are part of a sustainable lifestyle that strengthens our bodies while nourishing our spirits.

The things we have listed here are just the tip of the iceberg. We are all still learning, so we welcome your own ideas and tips to share with readers in a future column. What’s your own DIY (do-it-yourself) recipe or project? Nobody is perfect; the goal is not to be perfect, but to learn how to live in harmony with nature and each other so that generations after us will thrive on a pristine planet full of abundance, biodiversity, and beauty for all people, animals, and life interconnected. With cooperation and imagination, we have the power to create the world that we know is meant to be. Until next week, the hot potato is in your hands. Pass it on!

Some resources to help us live simply and sustainably:
• How To Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. See also Ecology Action’s site
• Food Not Lawns: How To Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community by H.C. Flores. See also
• Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel. See also – take the Ecological Footprint Quiz to estimate how much productive land and water you need to support what you use and what you discard.
• – source of “50 Million Farmers” article by Richard Heinberg and other articles on renewable energy news and sustainable solutions.
• – search Co-op America’s Green Pages, a national directory of environmentally and socially-conscious companies leading the way toward a cleaner, healthier society.
• YES! Magazine – An energizing, positive magazine “concerned with building a more just, sustainable, and compassionate future with articles about economic alternatives and peace options.” See

Adam and Aireen are available to give presentations or literature on GROW BIOINTENSIVE gardening and mini-farming to interested groups in the Chicago area.