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Wes Jackson: 'Let's Save the Stuff We're Made Of'

Researcher wants to protect soil by developing new, perennial grains

April 12, 2010 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Wes Jackson’s work to change how industrialized countries grow food is intended to save soil, a most basic resource, from slow degradation as well as fast-moving disasters like the Dust Bowl.
There is another way to farm.

That was the message delivered by agricultural pioneer Wes Jackson to more than 350 people at the State Theatre, in Traverse City, Thursday night.

Mr. Jackson’s speech challenged the big crowd—many of them growers from the Grand Traverse region—to revolutionize their thinking about crop production. It is a goal he’s pursued for more than 30 years as the founder of The Land Institute, in Salinas, Kansas.

Instead of farmers depending on heavily petroleum-based technologies, from tractors to fertilizers—to plow, plant, and feed crops every year—they need to come at agriculture from a brand new perspective: They must stop accepting soil erosion and the frequent use of toxic chemicals as necessary trade-offs for massive crop production.

“It comes down to this, my friends,” he told the big audience. “If we can keep ourselves fed in a sustained sort of way, that means saving the stuff of which we are made. That means the soil. Those of us sitting here tonight are nothing more than a step between soil and soil. We started off as soil and then we’ll be soil again.”

During his 90-minute talk, Mr. Jackson outlined his strategy for sustainable agriculture. It’s a strategy that has earned him recognition as one of the most important thinkers in the United States, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

A Perennial Problem
One of Mr. Jackson’s primary beliefs is that farmers should be using perennials instead of annuals for crop production. That is because perennials re-grow naturally every year. If farmers could avoid yearly field preparations and plantings, he said, it would greatly reduce the damage to soil that regular plowing and sowing cause. It would also dramatically reduce both petroleum-based fertilizer and fuel consumption, two major costs that large-scale agriculture constantly faces and which are major sources of heat-trapping gases.

Mr. Jackson said it is critically important to develop perennials for corn and soybean production, which he said are top causes of soil erosion.

“We are talking about (protecting) soil and organisms and the ecosphere,” Mr. Jackson said. “When people and land and community are as one, we all prosper. When regarded as competing agents, we all suffer.”

He observed that the system he’s proposing—which he and other researchers have been trying to develop for decades in greenhouses on the Kansas plains or at several agricultural research universities—replicates nature’s production of crops. That perennial cycle, he pointed out, is far more productive and efficient than the current system.

Progress on perennials has been slow, however. Last fall, The San Francisco Examiner reported that researchers at Michigan State University and Washington State University are, like The Land Institute, working on perennial wheat. The article quoted one of Mr. Jackson’s colleagues Institute colleagues saying that a farm-ready version was still more than a decade away.

Trusting the System
During Thursday night’s talk, Mr. Jackson said that much of both the scientific and business world, particularly large-scale agri-business, is viewing farming from the wrong perspective.

That perspective, he explained, studies plants and plant growth by breaking down their materials into atoms and monocultures in a constant search for more advances in what he calls “petri-dish economics.” He said this approach leads to more and more consumption of natural resources in the name of boosting crop production.

A far better approach than focusing so sharply on breaking down the natural system, he maintained, is making sure agri-business and farmers put the ecosphere first: Soils must be protected from the indiscriminate use of chemicals and pesticides, which he said have created oxygen-free dead zones in rivers and streams throughout the Midwest.

“Not the plow, not the herbicide, but fire and grazing,” he said, is the way to control, manage, and renew crops. He then added that, when we think that way, “Now we’ve got the ecosystem as the conceptual tool that is complete”—and that system then meshes with the practices of “the ancient managers of grasslands,” who, he reminded the audience, were historically primarily grass-seed eaters.

He also rejected the conclusion that his work leads to a choice between two starkly different, ultimately grim, scenarios.

“Production at the expense of conservation?” he asked. “Or, conservation at the expense of production?

“What we are saying is, there shouldn’t be a sacrifice area,” Mr. Jackson asserted. “If you want to save the ecological capital, conservation as the consequence of production is possible.”

Mr. Jackson also questioned the wisdom of five-year farm bills that federal legislators constantly adjust to changing markets and political winds. He advocates for a 50-year farm bill: legislation that develops a long-term strategy for increasing use of perennials, in particular in the production of wheat and other grains, which remain central to human diets, albeit in Western countries frequently as livestock feed.

He also advocates for localizing food production, instead of continually importing and exporting raw food products.

“We are willing to trade topsoil for Toyotas and VCRs,” Mr. Jackson said. “When you have exports you turn your food into a commodity, then you have to have subsidies, and things don’t always work out, so you have to make adjustments.”

Mr. Jackson’s comments earned him a standing ovation from the packed house.

Glenn Puit is a policy expert at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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