Monday, April 2, 2012

New Roots for Agriculture

Wes Jackson was born in Kansas farm country, in a place where his grandfather homesteaded.  The land of his birth was being destroyed by agriculture, and this drove him crazy.  Wes and his wife Dana created The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.  Their mission was to create sustainable agriculture, a noble 100-year project that he describes in New Roots for Agriculture.  This book is a great primer on farming — short, smart, and easy to read.
Our education system excels at graduating scholars who are blissfully ignorant about the food they eat.  Opponents of our truly horrid system for the mass production of meat, milk, and eggs often fail to recognize that our system for producing tofu, bean sprouts, and spinach is seriously defective as well.  Almost everything we eat has ecological costs far in excess of the price we are charged, and blissful ignorance keeps us marching down the wrong path.
Jackson has profound admiration for the Amish and Mennonites — America’s finest farmers — because they are religious about farming with exceptional care.  But their soil is not safe from normal hard rains, it washes away, too.  It’s heartbreaking.  No matter how hard you try, it fails.  It’s impossible to win when your primary tool is a plow (and no-till has its own serious drawbacks).
Jackson doesn’t restrict his scorn to modern stuff — agribusiness, pesticides, GM crops, the Green Revolution.  He condemns agriculture in its entirety.  It was a disaster 10,000 years ago, and it’s far, far worse today.  He has referred to it as an “accident,” but one that can be repaired.  We would be in far better shape today if we had continued dining on healthy wild foods, instead of shifting to growing crops on tilled fields.  He sees till agriculture as “a global disease” that is especially severe in the US, and “unless this disease is checked, the human race will wilt like any crop.”
Agriculture is a huge monster with a thousand heads, but it’s most terrible offense may be soil destruction, because it is largely irreparable.  Terrestrial life requires soil, and agriculture is tirelessly sending our finest soils to the bottom of the ocean.  It’s bad, and every farmer knows this.  Unfortunately, the system is designed to reward productivity, not ecosystem health.  Soil worshippers quickly go bankrupt.  Jackson is telling us nothing new, but he is shining a bright light on things that everyone should be thinking about at every mealtime.
There are a few exceptions to the rule.  In Japan and portions of northern Europe, agriculture has been relatively benign, because of unusual combinations of soil types, topography, and climate patterns — not superior farming techniques.  But almost everywhere else, it is a destructive process.  Note that neither of the two exceptions comes close to feeding their own populations.
Looking out his office window, Jackson can observe both heaven and hell — prairie and wheat field.  The prairie is beautifully adapted to the ecosystem, and suffers no erosion problems.  It actually builds healthy new soil.  The wheat field produces more calories per acre, but it is a soil mining operation, an extractive enterprise with no long term future.  Jackson’s core principle is that “no interest or value should be put above the health of the land.”  Let’s make that our planetary motto.
He believes that truly sustainable agriculture is possible.  Annual plants, like corn, wheat, and soy, need to be started from seed each year, which requires annual tilling, and results in significant soil erosion.  Perennial plants survive for a number of years.  Jackson recommends that we switch to perennials for grain production, because this would more closely resemble a prairie, and cause less erosion. 
In his plan, fields would contain a blend of different species of seed-bearing plants, not a monoculture of genetically identical plants.  The system would improve soil quality, maintain its own fertility, conserve water, have few problems with pests and diseases, require lower energy inputs, be more drought tolerant, and produce as much grain as conventional agriculture.  Because yields are highest in the first year, and then taper off, the prairie would have to be plowed and replanted periodically.  He estimates a five to ten year replant cycle.
It’s a radical idea that is much easier said than done.  To enable mechanical harvesting, the mix of species would have to ripen at the same time.  The mix would have to be fine-tuned for every microclimate and soil scenario.  The Land Institute is decades away from having a finished product, and there are no guarantees that it will ever reliably work as intended.  The Soviets had a similar idea back in the 1920’s.  They did decades of research, and then abandoned the project.  They claimed tremendous successes, but refused to show them to outsiders.
Jackson has some concerns about his vision.  The accident of agriculture began when we believed that we could cleverly control and manipulate nature.  And now, he’s attempting to correct the problem by using the same approach — controlling and manipulating nature.  That bothers him.  Sustainable agriculture must live in peace with the ecosystem, not replace the natural ecosystem with a chemical-soaked, soil-mining food factory.
This book was written over 30 years ago, when gas was 30 cents a gallon, and people thinking about Peak Oil numbered in the dozens.  In that era of innocence, you could still dream about plowing up the whole farm every five to ten years, and harvesting prairie-like grain fields with gas guzzling farm equipment.  Because Jackson’s plan requires the use of industrial machinery, it isn’t genuinely sustainable.  It can’t be harmlessly performed for the next 2,000 years, because it is dependent upon the existence of industrial civilization.
If you’re going to dream huge, magnificent, revolutionary dreams for a 100 year project, why not throw in radical population reduction, too?  An unsustainable population is, of course, completely unsustainable.  A much smaller herd would cause much less harm, and nothing is impossible when you’re dreaming. 
And why not dream of a cuisine where grains are not the foundation of the diet?  In another book, Jackson wrote that grains are core to the human evolutionary heritage.  Are they?  Many cultures throughout human history have done just fine with no grain foods at all.  Indeed, cultures that major in domesticated grains have a strong tendency to be over-crowded, belligerent, and suicidal.  Please help yourself to the nuts, berries, and grasshoppers. 
As I was reading, I kept thinking about Richard Manning’s vision of returning corn country to tall grass prairie, ripping out the fences, moving in the buffalos, elk, and wolves, and turning our bakeries into steak houses.  God was in fine form when she created prairie ecosystems, they were an absolutely brilliant design.  Ripping these perfect ecosystems to pieces with moldboard plows, planting grain fields, and exterminating the thriving community of wildness was the opposite of intelligent.
In his 1987 book, Altars of Unhewn Stone, Jackson described a 6,400 acre prairie ranch in the Flint Hills of Kansas that had never been plowed.  It supported 1,700 cattle during the grazing season, and it was mostly managed by a single cowboy.  Fertilizer was never used.  The use of fossil fuel was tiny.  Overgrazing was carefully avoided, and soil erosion was at normal levels for a healthy prairie.  If we replaced the cattle with buffalo, and gave them free range, would this be better for the land than perennial grains?  Could buffalo hunting be harmlessly performed for the next 2,000 years?
Jackson, Wes, New Roots for Agriculture, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1985. 

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