In order to solve humanity’s biggest crises—hunger, malnutrition, environmental degradation, and even climate change—farmers and ecologists need to get married.
That was the message Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas, brought to Woods Hole last week.
In a room filled with local scientists and backyard farmers, one could imagine a harmonious marriage.
If only the two hadn’t gotten divorced in the first place.
Speaking at MBL’s Lillie Auditorium on Feb. 2, Dr. Jackson’s wisdom was disguised in his easy Kansas manner.
“We need a system with an ecological world view,” he said, resting his elbow on a bent knee at the front of the stage.
“We need to start where climate change began: agriculture.”
A geneticist-agronomist and author who has received a number of prestigious awards– including the MacArthur Fellowship in 1992 and the Right Livelihood Award in 2000– Dr. Jackson has dedicated his life’s work to developing perennial grains, including wheat, rice, sorghum, and prairie flowers.
Since wheat was first developed as a domestic crop in 9000 BCE, farming has meant cultivating annual monocultures, Dr. Jackson said. But while great advances in civilization were made possible by the spread of agriculture, it also led to the destruction of the environment that supported it.
Wheat was the “pulverized coal of the soil. That’s where climate change had its beginnings,” he said. “If we were to eat, nature had to be subdued or ignored.”
Recognizing that scientific discoveries—including Copernican theory, Galileo’s discoveries, and Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species—would not have been possible if humanity had remained hunter-gatherers, Dr. Jackson pointed out that these advances were based on the “extracting economy” of various European empires, especially the British empire.
Whether people are mining for coal or engineering seeds to increase crop yields, there are consequences to this world view, he said.
With soil erosion in many parts of the world exceeding natural replacement levels and fertilizer runoff creating “dead zones” in places like the Gulf of Mexico, “we’re losing the stuff we are made of to the sea,” Dr. Jackson said.
Fifty years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the ecological threat posed by pesticides, the industry has doubled in size, he added. Though fertilizers led to the “green revolution,” the energy required to produce them outpaces the amount of calories created.
If only we would learn…
Humanity is operating on a “3.45 billion-year-old imperative” that causes us to seek out carbon-based resources to sustain ourselves, Dr. Jackson told the audience.
“There was never a need to practice restraint. It has to be something learned,” he said. “If we can save our soils, we can keep alive what we’ve learned on this long journey.”
Cultivating perennial poly-cultures can solve a number of agricultural headaches, from drought, pests, and the amount of work required to plow, plant, and harvest the crops each season, he said.
In partnership with researchers in China and Sweden, Land Institute researchers around the world are working on perennial varieties of the world’s three major major grains, rice, corn, and wheat– as well as oil-producing plants like mustard and sunflowers.
Dr. Jackson acknowledged the concept he and his colleagues are developing will not be popular with seed suppliers, and fertilizer, pesticide, and oil companies.
A paper published in 2008 by Land Institute researcher Stan Cox showed that perennial crops have the potential to feed a growing, ever-hungry population without destroying nature.
In this vision, the “sustainable agriculture industry” finally ceases to be an oxymoron– and in fact, could provide the hope for greater food security across the globe.
Considering that in 2006, prices for basic grains jumped 80 % for wheat, 60% for corn, and a whopping 320% for rice, the world’s hungry need all the help they can get.
If the uprising in Egypt is at least partly due to rising food prices– in a country where people barely survive on $2 a day– it’s possible that revolutionizing agriculture could also lead to word peace.
The perennial promise
Unfurling an 18-foot poster comparing perennial wheat to its domestic sister species, Dr. Jackson pointed out that the perennial variety’s long root system can find water where the annual plant cannot.
Perennial wheat has been found to fix carbon in the soil and reduce nitrate and water losses typically incurred at each harvest.
Furthermore, its productive life span of five to 10 years means a heartier crop that can compete with weeds and resist pests, reducing the need for pesticides.
Perennial wheat strains developed by The Land Institute have only been able to produce 40 percent of the seeds of an annual variety, said Dr. Jackson, who estimated the perennial strain will require up to 50 more years of interbreeding to match–and eventually exceed– that level of productivity.
But it will likely be worth the wait. Lab tests have shown that flour made from perennial wheat has 40 percent more protein, 10 times more folate and lutein, and up to 600 percent more nutrients than traditional wheat flour.
Dr. Jackson’s books, including the 2010 Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to New Agriculture, provide plenty of food for thought on the subject of sustainable agriculture, in which biologists and backyard gardeners may find common ground.
I wonder what would be served at the wedding.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.