create 15 cm of new topsoil. 15 cm is the minimum amount of topsoil required to grow healthy crops. But today, the rate of soil depletion across the globe is outstripping by far the rate of new soil formation. Every year, the U.S. loses soil 18 times faster than it is able to replenish it. And in some places the situation is even worse: some developing countries are losing even double that amount. Not to mention, China where the rate of depletion is as high as 54 times the rate of soil replenishment1. This is an alarming trend. Especially when considering that world population levels are booming, and our tired soils will have to feed 9.7 billion people by 20502.
Even though these numbers are worrying, doubling food production by 2050 is possible by adopting eco-friendly principles in farming. Conventional agriculture has reached its tipping point. Vast fields of monoculture crops draining nutrients from soils, killing biodiversity and thriving on a cocktail of toxic chemicals is not the option to feed the world anymore. That is why millions of small-scale farmers mainly in Africa and Latin America have started implementing the techniques of biointensive agriculture. Their reasons are simple.
- Doesn’t require high investment upfront
- Is less technology dependent
- Produces high yields from less land
- Uses less water
All these points make this form of farming suitable for small-scale farmers because it enables them to harvest great amount of produce from a limited amount of land with minimal financial input.
What is biointensive agriculture?
Biointensive agriculture is a sustainable organic farming system based on working with the basic elements needed for life – soil, water, air and sun – to achieve maximum yields, while increasing biodiversity and soil fertility. This system comprises of intensive mixed farming, which supports the principles of nutrient recycling and integrated pest management.
The key strategies of this type of farming system are:
- deep soil preparation to build solid root system
- on-site composting
- intensive companion planting
- carbon farming
- use of naturally pollinated seeds 3
One of the main differences between conventional agriculture and any sustainable practice is the emphasis on maintaining healthy soils. Biointensive agriculture achieves optimal soil conditions by performing the so-called double digging (which involves loosening two layers of soil instead of just one) to allow easier exchange of nutrients, air and water with plant roots, and by adding compost to return carbon and nutrients back to the soil.
Biointensive farms obtain compost from carbon farming. Carbon farming is based on cultivating crops that produce high amounts of biomass, and therefore, carbon (the main building element of plant bodies). These crops usually make up at least half of the available land because they provide the necessary material to replenish soil fertility, crucial for farming success. Examples of suitable plants are oats, amaranth or millet. When these crops reach maturity, farmers compost them for future use on farm3.
One important rule that biointensive farmers follow is minimal or no use at all of machinery because it compacts the soil and increases its vulnerability to erosion. Effects that are highly undesirable in this farming system 3.
As the name biologically intensive itself suggests, monoculture planting is a taboo in this practice. The main source of inspiration for this way of farming is the great biodiversity and harmony between plants in nature. That is why farmers plant companion crops to complement each other. A great example is the interplanting of three common crops, known also as three sisters, because they encourage each other’s growth while protecting the soil. These are corn, beans and pumpkins. Or planting tomatoes and basil together, as they enhance each other’s aroma3.
Environmental impacts of biointensive farming
Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of biointensive farming is to let the numbers speak for themselves.Biointensive farms use only a fraction of the resources used up in conventional farming to produce the same amount of produce.
More specifically they use:
- 25-50% of the land,
- 1-6% of the total energy,
- 0-50% of fertilizer,
- 12-33% of the water 1.
While these numbers are certainly concrete evidence that this way of farming comes with environmental benefits, there is one even more significant advantage. Biointensive agriculture is producing topsoil! The rate of soil creation is 60 times higher than it would be naturally4. The process of soil building is encouraged through techniques of soil conservation mentioned previously, but equally important is that soils are used sustainably. This is secured by allocating around 60% of available land to grow compost crops, which “feed” the soil and boost fertility instead depriving it like intensive farming does3.
Without doubt agriculture will have to undergo major changes to deal with increasing demand for food over the next 30 years or so. Farming systems of the future have to effectively produce high amount of calories from small areas of land. This means that the successful farmers of the future will be those who know how to sustainably maximize and diversify their yield, which can be achieved only if they have a healthy and thriving agricultural land, where biological processes are amplified to boost farmers’ efforts.