Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Issue No. 69
Spring 2001

Food in the Coming Century | Right Livelihood Awards 2000

BY Wes Jackson

s-3aa7f4442-6-1Acceptance Speech Delivered in Stockholm, Sweden, December 8, 2000.

Honor goes to all of those past and present who have brought The Land Institute to this moment: directors, researchers, support staff, students, and a far-flung regiment of private philanthropic foundations and grassroots supporters. Their contributions this past quarter-century represent a belief in the long-term necessity — and now the possibility — of solving the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture. Their steadfastness protected our ideas long enough to demonstrate the promise of a new paradigm: a Natural Systems Agriculture. Our hopeful message is now being more broadly sown. The message is that humanity can fashion an agriculture as sustainable as the nature we have destroyed, an agriculture that rewards the farmer and the landscape more than their external suppliers of inputs. An agriculture in which irreparable soil erosion ceases. An agriculture not dependent on fossil fuels or alien chemicals, an agriculture that honors the reality of the ecological mosaic as it honors the reality of the cultural mosaic of men and women in local habitats. Though it will be a long journey to reach this ideal, the agriculture of which I speak has this potential because it features nature’s wisdom rather than human cleverness. Consequently, it is more resilient to human folly, more forgiving. To mimic nature means to feature perennial crops whose roots hold the life giving soil and to grow them in mixtures that mimic the vegetative structures of nature. That is the nature’s wisdom side of the equation. The human cleverness side involves taking conventional annual crop species and breeding them to be transformed into perennials. With expanded commitment on the part of researchers and a modest amount of financial support, numerous prototypes of perennialized domestic grains could be available in the near future and ready for full blossom in the next half-century. While we have a great possibility before us, the realities of our time are sobering. The last one percent of the history of agriculture, the twentieth century, gave humanity its largest increase in food production. That accomplishment is unlikely to recur. Most of the elasticity for yield increase has been absorbed. Moreover, it was a Faustian bargain: much of the gain in grain yield came at the cost of accelerated soil degradation by erosion, chemical contamination, and salinization. Fully 38 percent of the planet’s agricultural soils are degraded now. In addition, the spread of industrial agriculture’s brittle economies has dislodged thousands of traditional farmers and torn much of the social and cultural fabric standing behind production. Population growth will end one day, voluntarily or otherwise. The first cries of the newborns who arrive that day will likely be heard in a very crowded world. We will want them fed every day, every week, every month, every year for the rest of their lives. They will want the same for their children and grandchildren. No one can foretell the time when the population growth curve will flatten, or under what circumstances, but we can be certain that the liquid fossil fuels will be severely reduced. Natural gas now serves as the feedstock for nitrogen fertilization, responsible for 40 percent of the current standing crop of humans. What natural soil fertility remains will be humanity’s best friend. We must be forever mindful that any food production that degrades soils now will eventually take food from our descendants. But there is hope. With the maturity of ecology and evolutionary biology, both disciplines are available to merge with agriculture and assist in truly sustainable food production. No other material or industrial process can entertain such a hope. If we don’t get sustainability in agriculture first, sustainability will not happen. Soils are the key. It is clear that agricultural civilizations have depended on an abundance of soils. Without the soils that sustain agriculture there would have been no pyramids, no Parthenon, no temple of Solomon, no Teotihuacan, no Forbidden City, no Chartres — no New York City or San Francisco, no United States of America. And without the later subsidy of fossil fuels, in combination with our soils, the scientific revolution would have stalled. It seems likely that there would be no knowledge of DNA, no Einstein equations, no space age, no Hubble telescope, no knowledge of tectonic plates and continental drift, no knowledge of geologic or cosmic time, no expansion of our knowledge of the scale of the universe or the inner recesses of the atom. All of those accouterments of civilization have rested on soil, which is as much a non-renewable resource as oil. We are the only species, in this part of the universe at least, that knows that we are made of stardust recycled through supernova. This awareness of our stellar origins should make us capable of absorbing the lessons of our planet’s ecosystems and then applying those lessons to agriculture. The agriculture we seek will act like an ecosystem, feature material recycling and run on the contemporary sunlight of our star. By beginning to make agriculture sustainable we will have taken the first step forward for humanity to begin to measure progress by its independence from the extractive economy.

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