Learning to reap crops without raping the land

Land Institute founder says the plow has done more than the sword to destroy what future generations need.

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Perennial rice seeds

Land Institute founder says the plow has done more than the sword to destroy what future generations need.

Next spring I'll dig up part of my small front yard and pull out shotweed, dandelion, grass, rudbeckia migrants from the flower border, and surviving romaine stumps from last year. To fill my little plot with a single annual — butter lettuce — I’ll kill all visible living things in it, including self-seeding perennials, while invisible microbial organisms die beneath layers of turned-over soil.

Farmers around the world commit this kind of herbal genocide every year on a massive scale, as MacArthur fellow Wes Jackson of The Land Institute told his audience on the final night (Nov. 30) of the UW fall lecture series, "Food: Eating Your Environment." Modern monocultural practices, in which farmers plant a single crop of wheat, corn, rice, or potatoes in vast fields annually stripped of the organic matter that creates the soil in the first place, are gradually destroying the Earth's capacity to feed its people.

Further, the petrochemical-based fertilizers used to replenish the missing nutrients, not to mention the herbicides and pesticides used to kill the weeds and noxious insects that flourish when ecosystems lose their balance and diversity, create enormous dead zones along seacoasts. According to Jackson, even an organic, "minimum till" approach "leaks nitrogen and causes dead zones." Finally, annual monocultures abet the erosion of 5.5 tons of topsoil from U.S. farmland every year.

"The plow has destroyed more of what future generations need than the sword," was the way Jackson summed up agricultural history since prehistoric times. He said we must create a sustainable system of agriculture that is "more resistant to human folly."

Jackson started his talk, "The Ecosystem as the Measure: 50 Years to Perennial Sustainability," by reminding the audience that usable carbon is necessary to life and civilization, and that the earth has only five pools of carbon: forests, coal, oil, natural gas, and soil. Farming, like coal-mining and oil-drilling, is an extractive industry, scooping up the carbon we use for energy, including food calories. The problem is that modern monocultural farming depletes carbon resources instead of conserving them. Over time, the supply of carbon in American soils has diminished by half — from 6 percent to 3 percent, said Jackson.

That's because Europeans originally migrated here "as a poor people, to what looked like a rich, empty land," he explained, quoting one of his colleagues. "We built our political, economic, educational, and even religious institutions on this perception," and through replacing diverse natural ecosystems with unnatural monocultures, we became "rich people on an increasingly poor land." Jackson recalled the writer and farmer Wendell Berry as saying that "when we came across the continent, cutting the forests and plowing the ground, we didn't know what we were undoing."

This blindness persists today, in Jackson's view. Discussions of sustainable or resilient agriculture tend to focus on local food and farmers' markets. "But we can’t treat agriculture, nutrition, and health as some kind of satellite orbiting an extractive economy" that fails to conserve soil resources essential for sustaining life. Agriculture, health, and nutrition are inseparable from the forms of our collective economic, political, social, and physical world.

What we need, he continued, is a form of agriculture that mimics the natural ecosystem: perennial polycultures. Perennials do not require the annual destruction or labor of plowing and planting, they produce from early spring to late fall, and a polycrop field is more likely to survive the single diseases that can devastate many square miles of a monoculture. Perennial polycropping mimics the prairie, in other words. It not only provides a sustainable, resilient food supply but is in itself a form of conservation.

The Land Institute and other organizations are crossbreeding wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, rye, maize, and sorghum with wild grasses to produce perennial hybrids with deep, thick root systems that will remain in the soil from year to year, protecting it from erosion and requiring less irrigation. Jackson described the roots of a recently developed hybrid perennial wheat grain called Kernza as "an investment in the soil, whereas annuals have to bootstrap plants" each year to grow in dirt that has been stripped of life. When farmers don't have to plow the land and rip out stubble every year in order to produce a harvest, they can focus on "the elegant management of micronutrients and water" within diverse biosystems that accommodate all kinds of natural microbes and invertebrates.

Jackson urged his audience to push for a 50-year farm bill to replace the typical five-year farm bills periodically drafted in the other Washington. "Five-year farm bills address exports, commodities, subsidies, some soil conservation measures, and food programs," he said. An intelligent 50-year farm bill would also seek to "protect the soil from erosion, cut fossil-fuel dependence, sequester carbon, reduce toxins in soils and waters, manage nitrogen carefully, reduce dead zones, cut wasteful water use, and preserve or rebuild farm communities."

With such a structure established, and with farm subsidies reassigned to support perennials that could replace countless acres of annuals such as corn, the balance in America's 320 million crop acres could shift gradually, over a few decades, from 20 percent perennials and 80 percent annuals to the reverse. An 80-20 perennial-to-annual crop balance would approximate the original proportions of the once-sustainable fields and forests that originally thrived on this continent.

The rebalancing could be achieved in just half a century, and we would see related results even sooner, said Jackson. "By 2039 every American stream would be safe to swim in, and our dead zones would be fisheries."

Through Land Institute operations, Jackson has been working with college and graduate students all over the U.S. who are committed to making agriculture sustainable. "They carry the 'ecosystem' virus," he said, "and I’m hoping it can overcome the immune system of the American university."


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