Analogy: A Driver and Natural Systems Agriculture

By Wes Jackson in Feature Articles - October 4, 1999

Natural Systems Agriculture represents a radical alternative to essentially all of the agricultural arrangements that dominate agricultural lands. Even our friends working in the general area of sustainable agriculture are trying to cope with the economic realities of the time by being smarter in the management of the resources going into crop production. A future Natural Systems Forestry or Natural Systems Fisheries would be as radical as what we have imagined for agriculture. It is radical in more than the fact that it features perennials in polyculture for a derivative of such an arrangement means that the reward runs to the farmer and the landscape rather than the suppliers of inputs. With the ecosystem as the conceptual tool and soil as the central feature, reductive science is forced into a back seat in what we imagine to be a 25-year journey.

Imagine a six-passenger van. Seated in the front of this six-passenger van is an ecologist at the wheel with an environmental or ecological historian on the passenger side. Occupying three positions in the seat behind are two plant breeders and a systems modeler. Sitting at the back of the van is a biotechnologist. As the van moves along at times the road twists and winds, lots of curves, lots of hills with steep grades, but other times the terrain is flat, the road is straight. The speed is increased or decreased according to the conditions in which the passengers find themselves. The ecologist is at the wheel because he or she is the most cautious driver. The ecologist, however, has many backseat drivers with varying opinions about how to take this curve or that, whether to put more pedal to the accelerator as they go up a hill, how to handle the hill. The biotechnologist clear to the rear of the van has a voice which can be heard, but he or she is not allowed to come near the steering wheel.