A Canvas for Thought

May 2, 2007

A New Way to Feed The World

Filed under: ideas — vednis @ 2:26 pm

Spring has come, and my wife and I have turned our attentions to gardening. Explorations of companion gardening eventually led to John Jeavons’ work with biointensive farming, the dreams of a US Navy scientific genius, John Craven, and, just maybe, a new way to feed the world.

There is a nice interview with Jeavons where he puts the results of his research into perspective:

“It takes about 15,000 to 30,000 square feet of land to feed one person the average U.S. diet,” he says. “I’ve figured out how to get it down to 4,000 square feet. How? I focus on growing soil, not crops.”

The technique is interesting, with great potential. Jeavons has a book, now in its 7th edition, detailing his methods and discoveries. But something about Jeavons’ work stirred the dust in my memories: this isn’t the first ecologically sound intensive farming technique I have read about.

Ah yes, now I remember: an ex-US Navy scientific genius, John Craven, has been using cold ocean water to repeatedly shock the roots of plants, causing cycles of dormancy followed by frantic growth. This leads to greatly increased crop yields.

He talks about his technique in an interview with Wired:

“Craven’s system exploits the dramatic temperature difference between ocean water below 3,000 feet – perpetually just above freezing – and the much warmer water and air above it. … The cold water also creates a temperature difference between root and fruit that Craven believes speeds growth. And by turning the flow on and off, Craven has found he can further accelerate the plants’ growth cycle by forcing them in and out of dormancy – he can get three crops of grapes a year and pineapples in eight months instead of the usual 18.”

“We’ll make freshwater for nothing, 3,000 to 15,000 pounds of grapes per acre per year, three times what the best vineyard in California can do.”

Fascinating things could happen if you combine Craven’s techniques with Jeavons’. Could you double the output per hectare of biointensive methods? That would be a fifteen-to-one land improvement over traditional farming, with the added bonus of being completely organic and sustainable.

Ah, not so fast. Craven points to one problem:

“What the world doesn’t understand,” says Craven, … “is that what we don’t have enough of is cold, not heat.”

This is true; Craven’s techniques rely on readily available cold, to bring down costs, and to keep the energy clean. The root-chilling technique would require the creation of quite a bit of cold, especially if it were to scale in hot climates.

But what if we lived in Northern latitudes, where the tempurature is below freezing for a good part of the year? We could harness the cold climate, storing the cold as ice. After all, the Persians were storing ice in 400BC! We just need to store enough ice to run our root-chilling system through the short Northern growing season.

So, could it work? Yes, I believe it could. It took Jeavons thirty years to establish his techniques, and it took Craven seven. Perhaps, with a little scientific rigour, and some social networking, we could do it in less.

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