Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Dr. Wes Jackson

We hear from Dr. Wes Jackson, the President of the Land Institute.

By Amy Nelson

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Wes Jackson was born in 1936 on a farm near Topeka, Kansas. After attending Kansas Wesleyan (B.A Biology, 1958), he studied botany (M.A. University of Kansas, 1960) and genetics (Ph.D. North Carolina State University, 1967). He was a professor of biology at Kansas Wesleyan and later established the Environmental Studies program at California State University, Sacramento, where he became a tenured full professor. He resigned that position in 1976.

Dr. Jackson’s writings include both papers and books. His most recent work, The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge, co-edited with William Vitek, was released by University of Kentucky Press in 2008. Rooted in the Land:  Essays on Community and Place, also co-edited with William Vitek, was published in 1996. Becoming Native to This Place, 1994, sketches his vision for the resettlement of America’s rural communities. Altars of Unhewn Stone appeared in 1987 and Meeting the Expectations of the Land, edited with Wendell Berry and Bruce Colman, was published in 1984. New Roots for Agriculture, 1980, outlines the basis for the agricultural research at The Land Institute.

Wes Jackson is a recipient of the Pew Conservation Scholars award (1990), a MacArthur Fellowship (1992), and Right Livelihood Award (Stockholm), known as “Alternative Nobel Prize” (2000). He has received four honorary doctorates and in 2007 received the University of Kansas Distinguished Service Award.

The work of The Land Institute has been featured extensively in the popular media including The Atlantic Monthly, Audubon, National Geographic, Time Magazine, The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Life magazine named Wes Jackson as one of 18 individuals they predict will be among the 100 “important Americans of the 20th century.” In the November 2005 issue, Smithsonian named him one of “35 Who Made a Difference.”

What led you to start The Land Institute back in 1976?

Just as I got tenure as full professor, my thinking intensified about the kind of education necessary to really deal with the problems of the ecosphere. It was clear that the deterioration of the ecosphere was an outward mirror of an inner condition. Therefore, we needed to test our values and philosophical ideas against physical reality. I thought that if students could spend half their time reading, thinking and discussing and the other half with hands on, we could tie the abstractions with the particularities. That might cause students to more likely be interested in ‘spontaneous elaboration’ rather than settle for minimal compliance too characteristic of college students.

I have seen the Land Institute described as “a modest organization with an audacious goal: to re-invent agriculture.” The Institute’s web site mentions a goal of “having conservation as a consequence of agricultural production.” How close has the Institute come to realizing its goals, and have its goals changed?

Our values haven’t changed, but we’ve had to narrow our focus to where we thought we could be the most effective. When we began, we said we were “devoted to a search for sustainable alternatives in agriculture, energy, shelter and waste management. But as we moved along, this changed. First of all, what do I know about shelter and waste management? Coming off of a Kansas farm, having done a Ph.D. in genetics in a college of agriculture at a land grant institution (North Carolina State University), and knowing the serious problems of soil erosion, fossil fuel dependency and chemical contamination of our land and water, it seemed to make more sense – in thinking about the problem of agriculture – to narrow our emphasis to an area in which we could really be effective.

That’s not to say we haven’t chimed in when it comes to climate change and the energy problem. In fact, if you’re working in the realm of agriculture, you’re into energy automatically. Our sense of “oughtness” keeps us aligned with various other non-profits and colleagues who are similarly interested, but our primary job is working to perennialize the major crops and put them in mixtures that would mimic the vegetative structure of a natural ecosystem – particularly a prairie.

Our goal is to use nature as the standard for measure. Essentially, all of nature’s ecosystems feature perennials in mixtures and all of our high yielding crops are annuals and treated as such. Our job is to perennialize the landscape.

To me, the idea of perennializing crops seems like a no brainer. What is the greatest barrier to widespread acceptance and application of this?

First of all, for ten to twelve thousand years, our primary sources of calories have been these annual grains: rice, wheat, corn, sorghum, soy beans, etc. They are all annuals.  There are, essentially, no perennials that are herbaceous. There are plenty of woody perennials, like fruit trees, but they represent such a small percentage of the total agricultural acreage of the planet. Somewhere between 68 – 80% of the agricultural acreage of the planet is devoted to annual monocultures. So yes, it might seem like a no brainer, but it takes a long time to perennialize a major crop. When we started, I said it’d be a 50-100 year time frame. There’s no quick fix on this. Well, how many people are interested in working on something they can’t finish in their lifetime? That’s the nature of most humans. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that we need to start now. We have a saying: “if we’re working on something we can finish in our lifetime, we’re not thinking big enough.”

The topic of this issue of Leaf Litter is agroecology. For some of our readers, this may be an unfamiliar term. What does the word ‘agroecology’ mean to you? Does it differ from ‘eco-agriculture, ‘permaculture’ and ‘sustainable agriculture?’ If so, how?

Those are all pretty close to being synonyms. John Piper and I published a paper several years ago about the necessary marriage of ecology and agriculture. A little history here is important. Ecologists and evolutionary biologists have had the luxury of being descriptive. Whereas agriculturalists have had the burden of being prescriptive. Those are two different worlds. The world of the describer and the world of the prescriber need to be brought together. If one, say, is working in agroecology or is an agroecologist, at least they’re acknowledging the necessity to bring the two together. If one is working in eco-agriculture, or permaculture, that, too, involves acknowledging the need for a marriage.

If one is working in sustainable agriculture, it is useful to have ecosystem as the conceptual tool. The way agriculture has been, nature is to be subdued or ignored. By bringing the processes of the wild to the farm, we get the complementality that comes from species interactions.

The Land Institute’s web site mentions using “nature as a standard or measure” for decisions in agronomics. How do you define sustainability in agriculture and how, specifically, can/should it be measured?

No deficit spending of the stuff we’re made of, the ecological capital. If you look at the upper third of the periodic chart of the elements represented, there are twenty some elements that go into organisms. Only four of those elements are in the atmospheric commons: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. The others are in the soil. That’s the stuff that we’re made of. If we don’t have those elements, we’re not going to fix carbon and we’re not going to have a standing crop of biomass – whether it’s human, deer, turkey, corn plants or anything else. Those are the elements that go into living organisms. Sustainability means that we not erode the ecological capital beyond replacement level. We need those nutrients that go into organisms back on the land. If we don’t, then we’re involved in deficit spending of the landscape.

I’ve had numerous people ask me to define sustainability and give me an example. There’s a short answer in addition to the longer one I’ve just given you. Define justice and give me a good example. Both are value terms. We can’t get a good definition of justice or find an impeccable example, yet we have organized society around that concept. We’ll never get it perfect, but it’s far better to have the concept of justice, subject to the vicissitudes of history, than not have it. In a similar manner, it’s better to have the concept of sustainability, subject to the vicissitudes of history, than to not have it. My feeling is, let’s run with it and do the best we can. It came out of “the people,” not out of Washington.

Where, in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, do you believe more progress has been made toward less deficit spending and more sustainability of ecological capital?

Wherever people who feature perennial grasslands, so that means ranching. If they don’t overstock, that’s pretty sustainable. You still have fossil fuel for pickup trucks, hauling your cattle, etc., but that’d be one. Forestry has the potential. The ordinary grass farmer has something closer to sustainability. For agriculture, as a group, the Amish are probably ahead. There are individuals, scattered here and there, who are very careful in the management of their farms, so that after a heavy rain you don’t find soil headed toward a watery grave in the ocean.

There is a lot of rice farming in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia which takes advantage of the nutrients that have already run down from the highlands and using very little fossil fuel. Until the building of the Aswan Dam, farming along the Nile valley was fairly sustainable.

We are a land animal, so we have to look at land. Most land of the world is rolling land, not valley land. The civilizations that have managed to be relatively sustainable are the valley civilizations or areas where there has been some cultural practice for maintaining terraces like some of the rice farming terraces you see in the Orient. There, we’ve had farmers for 40 centuries. There’s a famous book about this written by F.H. King called Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan.

Those are the places where we’ve had the good examples, however, during industrial time, the circuits have been blown in a lot of those areas. We also had fewer people then. The Green Revolution, for instance, in places like Latin America, Asia, Africa where they had land races of crops that were replaced by larger farmers and the Green Revolution varieties.

Do you think principles of agroecology can be applied anywhere food is grown (at any scale; in any part of the world)?

That depends on how general the principal is. There are so many watts of energy per hour that can be harvested by chlorophyll per square meter. There are also basics that have to do with the second law of thermodynamics, and that is that big fish eat little fish and little fish eat littler fish, and so on. You have different trophic levels within ecosystems. In some of those, there are symbiotic relationships.

If we start with some of those basics and then find the commonalities across all ecosystems, we can get started. That is not too hard. Ecologists have been working on these kinds of questions for decades.

But then we need to remember one very important reality that involves the other end of the spectrum: all adaptation is local. That, by the way, acknowledges the baseline for the reality of the ecological mosaic. At one scale, no two square feet are the same. You are moving up to another scale, certain details will have to be ignored. These are the kinds of considerations that are going to have to be increasingly brought into the consciousness of future agriculturalists, foresters and ranchers.

Now, as things currently stand, Homo the Homogenizer will plant soybeans in Brazil on former rainforest land, a heavy rainforest, and also plant soybeans in Nebraska where there was once a prairie, and irrigate with fossil water out of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The fields of conservation biology and regenerative design are becoming increasingly integrated. Are you seeing the same kind of melding of disciplines and industries…agriculture and development, etc?

Right now I’m in a car, heading to the airport in Wichita to fly to San Francisco for a slow food conference. I’ll be on a panel there, but the main reason I’m going is to work with a group of people to put together a 50-year land use bill. We started out with a 50 year farm bill and changed it to be more inclusive. The idea at the start was that we’d use five-year farm bills as mileposts toward a 50-year bill. Since then, we have added forestry and ranching, so now it’s 50 years on the land.

We hope to get it in front of presidential candidates Obama and McCain for the next Secretary of Agriculture, and beyond agriculture we need to influence the Secretary of the Interior. I think the timing is good, partly because Obama has been talking about change and because there’s a constituency developing. So far we’ve had meetings in Washington, DC, Illinois, and Minnesota. After San Francisco, we’ll be meeting in Oregon and North Carolina. These are people who have been thinking about sustainable agriculture for a long time. They make up a constituency that has been building, and stewing for many years. Together, we can all address the number one issue: soil erosion, and number two: chemical contamination of land and water.

We have got to stop eroding the stuff that we’re made of and quit losing our ecological capital. We must stop chemical contamination of the land and water and fossil fuel dependency. That’s the collective consciousness of these folks. Well, that and keeping alive the family farm and actually getting more people on the land and increasing the eyes to acres ratio. This is a big agenda we have before us. We hear the talk among the politicians about climate and energy. We were talking about that 30 years ago. We have wasted three decades now. Maybe we’ll find the substitutes for the fossil energy with wind machines, solar collectors, conservation, etc. But there is no substitute for soil. We’re not going to have a technological substitute for soil. That’s our mission now, to increase awareness and action. We can now say that there is a critical mass that has developed.

What programs, policies, etc. do you think should be put into place, perhaps as part of this bill, to ensure the long-term viability of agroecology?

Good question. Number one, let’s reexamine our export policy, which has caused a huge subsidy for certain crops. We feature bushels and acres and ignore the soil erosion, the nitrogen put on the fields, the creation of dead zones. Let’s examine why it is an export policy is so important we have to subsidize it. Of course we don’t. It’s to offset the balance payment deficit for, among other imports, foreign oil. Instead of bankrupting our landscape in the interest of the short term balance of payment problem, let’s say okay, here is our goal: To save the soil and water resource means we have to perennialize most of the landscape. Instead of something like 80% of our landscape being devoted to the annual, let’s reverse that and have 80% devoted to the perennial.

In the short run, what that means is getting more of our land grass down, more grass fed meat, perhaps elimination of the mega-feed lot entirely, quit growing so much corn and soybeans for cattle and let’s get them on grass. There will be fewer cattle, but we don’t need that much protein anyway. That’s one. Then, let’s get a massive program of perennializing the major crops. Over the next 50 years, gradually increase the perennial grain crops. Even though the population is expanding, we do hope and expect that the U.S. population will bend over and begin to go negative by 2100. Unfortunately, we could have another 100 million 30 years from now. So it’s the perennialization of the landscape to get those roots to take hold of the soil.

Can lands degraded by industrial agriculture really be restored to the level at which they can sustain a perennial polyculture and regain “the genius of place?”

It all depends. If you have the nutrients  – phosphorous, potassium, manganese, so on –  then restoration is easier. But if you don’t, there’s not much you can do on a large scale. That’s one reason we have deserts on the march. The answer is yes and no. If you’re in Iowa, and there’s been degradation, the nutrients may be there because the soils are deep as a result of the Pleistocene Ice having pushed them down off the Canadian Shield. One can jump start soil improvement again and build back soil. But if you don’t have the stuff organisms are made of you’re not going to do it.

In ecological restoration and regenerative design, there is a lot of talk about traditional ecological knowledge. What can we learn from indigenous peoples that can be applied to current and future agroecosytems?

The first thing to be attentive to with indigenous peoples is the fact that they have been living for a long time on contemporary sunlight, which is dispersed energy. People who are harvesting, and in some cases growing, their food supply without any fossil fuel input can teach us a great deal.

This is the big lesson that every young person needs to learn: we need to acknowledge the reality of the subsidies that we have introduced to give us the illusion that our system is more sophisticated than the systems of indigenous peoples.

Once we introduce a fossil carbon into a food system, such as natural gas, which serves as the feedstock for the Haber-Bosch process to turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, we have a different world. There is an energy cost for non-renewable sources. There is a cost for fertility or traction from industrial sources.

Indigenous peoples have not been relying on that fossil carbon, until more recent times. The nature of the patterns of a people in a particular place that have been relying on contemporary sunlight for their sustenance and health is the story that needs to be understood by those of us trying to figure out how to wean ourselves from the extractive economy.

You mention wanting to get this message out to young people. I know that you founded the Land Institute to guide the abstraction to the particularity. Has it been difficult to convert academia to your paradigm?

We can’t expect to turn this big a ship around in a hurry. It takes time. There is also reluctance on the part of a fair number of professorial types to get in involved in something that is so long-term. Then there is the unconscious institutionalization of the technologies that are dependent upon the fossil fuels which has created a kind of technological fundamentalism. There’s a belief that we’re going solve these problems through technology without acknowledging the scaffolding that stands behind even the renewables such as a wind machine. For instance, if you’re hauling blades, towers and generators to a wind machine site, you’re traveling over roads, and that’s an embodied energy cost. Where will the energy come from to fix the pothole? How much of that pothole repair should be charged against the wind machine? By the time you’re through doing the accounting on all of this, a lot of people just throw up their hands and say, “it can’t be done.” Of course it can’t be done, but there needs to be some acknowledgement that civilization itself, with its technological fundamentalism, has made a commitment to the idea that we’re going to solve these problems through technology. We will need economic growth through the short term of renewables being put in place, but ultimately we better think about how we’re going to stop growth. It’s been energy that has made this economic growth possible. So we can say so far it’s been the energy available to build the accoutrements of civilization that has created so many of our problems. When you’re caught within that system it’s very easy to develop this kind of religious fervor for technology. From my point of view, we need to assemble a group of adults to look at the hard questions and not worry about the political consequences or political reality.

So would you say  that the momentum of the past – that ship that’s so hard to turn around – is the greatest challenge to changing people’s  mindsets regarding agroecology?

We all know that all things interact. I believe that if we had our perennials farmer ready now, the consciousness could shift very fast, because they would be compelling alternatives. But think about who wouldn’t be interested in perennial polyculture. Number one, the seed houses. If you have perennials, you don’t need seeds being planted every year in the same field. The farm machine companies wouldn’t be interested because there would be fewer passes through the field. The chemical companies who make fertilizer won’t be interested. You get biological nitrogen fixation using contemporary sunlight. The chemical companies that produce insecticides and fungicide won’t be interested. With species diversity you have chemical diversity and it’d take a tremendous enzyme system on t he part of an insect or pathogen to give you an epidemic.

This doesn’t mean there would be no fertilizer or pesticide. But if we have our eye on the ball, and it does mean no soil erosion and no fossil fuel dependency, then we can begin to imagine a different future.

What we need, first of all, is a vision. That’s the reason for this 50-year use of the AmericanLand bill we’re working on. If we get that vision our there in the same way Kennedy got a vision out there about putting a man on the moon in a decade, that increases our imagination about possibilities. Just recently, watching the Democratic convention, I was amazed. Martin Luther King’s vision was expressed 40 years ago, and now there is a black man running for president. It takes time. The question is, do we have that kind of time given the rapid climate change coming on?

How is climate change affecting the institute’s work?

First of all, let me throw out a disclaimer. I’m not a climatologist. I’m a geneticist. I respect a way of knowing through those who publish and referee journals. I think it’s the best way to come to know a physical reality. I accept the consensus of the Intergovernmental panel and the National Academy of Sciences.

A little over a year and a half ago, they wanted to build a coal fired plant here in Kansas. Our Governor was for it, but there was a chance to testify so I did. Before it was over with, we turned our Governor 180 degrees. Kansas became the first state in the country to say no on the grounds of CO2. We then established a climate energy initiative. That now has a several people working in constituency building to do something about energy consumption, not just in Kansas, but on a larger geographical scale.

I’m concerned about what that means for agriculture in Kansas and elsewhere. The models are not all in agreement. I’ve heard some say that Kansas will be hotter, but not necessarily dryer. Others say it will be hotter and dryer. We are studying this as part of our research agenda.

What is your stance is on urban agriculture and growing food on urban green roofs?

I think anything that allows people to connect to the biological world beyond humans and pigeons is a good thing and should be encouraged. The only thing to be mindful of is don’t presume that you’re dealing with 400 million acres that are sustaining the human population. I think it’s important for conscience raising and to get people to be in touch. The primary value to me is that it’s an empathy raiser.

Has the Institute worked on developing any perennial vegetable staples like corn, potatoes, tomatoes, etc?

Corn is a species that ought to be perennialized. It’s going to be difficult to get winter hardiness into corn. We have started working on this, but we need a full time geneticist for that. We have crosses between corn and a perennial type of corn from Mexico, but we really need to get the genes for winter hardiness into corn. Potatoes are a very important vegetable crop, but you’d have to tear up the ground to get the potato out.

If you look at the inventory of crops, number one is rice, number two is wheat, number three is corn, and number four is potato. After that, you’re back into the grain crops again. Other than potatoes, vegetables occupy such a small percentage of the acreage of the planet. The vegetables we think we need to make us healthy – peas, beans, tomatoes, etc. – only occupy about 4% of the agricultural land.

If you could be any kind of plant, what kind would you be and why?

A perennial corn plant. That’s about the most amazing plant that I know of. It has what we call very active heterosis, which means hybrid vigor. If you put two inbred lines together, you get a very big increase in yield. It has its ears down on the side of the stem, not hanging out there on the end where it can break off your stem. It also captures a lot of sunlight. If we could have a perennial corn plant… whoa boy.

But that is a reductive question. The better question would be: if you could have your ideal ecosystem, what would you have? Now you can begin to think about an ecosystem in which you have the legumes, the corn plant, some warm season grasses, cool season grasses, and any member or the sunflower family, with all of them interacting in ways that have a net primary production of carbon. That would allow us to harvest a lot for our purposes and not degrade the ecological capital of the soil.

What can people in our fields of work (ecological restoration, conservation planning, regenerative design) collectively do to affect positive change in agriculture and help change the ways of “Homo the Homogenizer?”

Number one is conversation. I try to imagine conversations everywhere – from the country club the water cooler. Think what, say, political correctness has done to eliminate racist and sexist language. People talk about political correctness as a pejorative, but we’re talking about the change of consciousness here. The first thing we have to acknowledge is that we need to keep talking it up.

But we know that talk isn’t enough. Ultimately, you have to start putting some particularity to work. There are things like Community Supported Agriculture. There’s a slow food movement. We can begin, through these movements, increasing the consciousness about the possibilities tied to long term necessity. People learn and then get pulled into what me might call this fight and work in the area of their passions. Everybody can’t go out and be a plant breeder, but there are many ways to begin to vote for the local. Take the farmer’s market. Going to the farmer’s market begins to reduce the driving. Maybe we say hey, we do have to pay more, but we end up paying less because we end up paying fewer taxes in order to keep up an infrastructure that has us driving around so much.

Other than the points you have already made in our interview, what is one key thing you’d like to communicate to our readers about agroecology?

I’d like to see them get behind the necessity for a 50-year plan for U.S. land because if we can’t get our house in order, we’re going to have a hard time telling the world what to do. Get behind anything that moves agriculture from an extractive economy to a renewable economy and measure our progress. That would be what I would hope a president would say in an inaugural address: “My fellow Americans, from this day forward, we as a people are going to measure our progress by how independent of the extractive economy we become, and we’re going to begin with our food supply.” Now we won’t hear that in January, but maybe if we get started now, we’ll hear it in 2013.

Got an idea?

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