Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 18, 2000. According to an emerging school of thought in archaeology, "human-induced degradation of the environment" has played a far greater role in the fall of civilizations — from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica — than previously recognized. The human activity that has taken the most serious toll, in this view, is agriculture. Wes Jackson believes that agriculture is taking that toll today, and he has devoted almost 25 years to finding a solution. A refugee from academe he earned his Ph.D. in genetics from North Carolina State University in 1967 and founded the environmental-studies program at California State University at Sacramento in the early 1970's — Jackson has, since 1976, directed the Land Institute here — a nonprofit research center devoted to solving "the problem of agriculture." Along the way, he has won a MacArthur foundation "genius grant" (in 1992), support from the Pew Trusts, and widespread attention. It hasn't been an easy or simple task to persuade people that agriculture is a problem and requires fixing. For years, the increasing productivity of America's farms and the "green revolution" were seen as major success stories. As Jackson is fond of saying, "Nothing fails like success. The failure of success is the worst of all, because you do not learn anything from it." In New Roots for Agriculture (University of Nebraska Press, 1980), Jackson outlined what he saw as the problem of agriculture and his program for repairing it. "We grow increasingly more food on fewer acres and, in 1978, exported over twenty-seven billion dollars' worth of farm products a year on a planet where people are hungry and starve by the millions," he wrote. "There is a strong temptation for us to believe we must be doing something right." "Unfortunately," he added, "our successes are measured on discount economics." American agriculture, he said, relies on "heavy fossil-fuel chemotherapy which has given us all a false sense of the health of the agricultural system, even as it is being poisoned and further depleted. At the moment, we are poisoning the North American continent with pesticides and fertilizers, salting millions of acres through irrigation, and promoting erosion, through our methods of cultivating, of tens of millions of acres of top cropland." Any agriculture based on such an "extractive economy," consuming non-renewable resources, he said, is bound to fail. "A one does a mental survey of the agricultural problem, . . . one is forced to acknowledge the double bind with which we are confronted: without agriculture there will be an immediate mass starvation, but with agriculture there will be a continual eroding away of the productive basis of human livelihood." "Is there no way out of such a trap?" he asked. "Is it our fate that we must merely wait for the unfolding of the drama?" Jackson's answer was then and is now No, and his way out — what he and his colleagues at the Land Institute have been investigating for more than 20 years — is "natural systems agriculture." In effect, he hopes to create an agriculture that mimics the native prairie around him. It would be based on perennial rather than annual crops, so that the land would not need to be plowed and reseeded each year. At least four crops would be grown together. Such a "polyculture of herbaceous perennials" would, the institute says, "run on sunlight, preserve soil, maintain biological diversity, yield adequately, and not rely on harmful synthetic chemicals for fertility or pest management." To produce what Jackson has called "instant granola in the field," the institute has identified four basic biological questions:
- Can perennial grains produce yields of seeds great enough to be agriculturally viable? The prevailing view has been that perennials devote so much energy to maintaining their root systems that they cannot produce yields as high as those of annuals.
- Can perennials yield more when planted in combination with other species than when planted alone?
- Can a perennial polyculture provide its own nitrogen, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizer?
- Can such an ecosystem produce natural defenses against weeds, insects pests, and disease?