The Destructive Nature of Our Bountiful Harvests

By Malcolm G. Scully in Feature Articles - February 18, 2000
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?
Working with four species — Illinois bundleflower, a legume; mammoth wild rye, a cool-season grass; eastern gammagrass, a warm-season grass related to corn; and Maximilian sunflower, researchers at the institute have come up with what Jackson calls a "tentative Yes" to each of the four biological questions. He acknowledges that experiments thus far have produced only "modest successes," and that far more research and experimentation will be required. Nonetheless, he says, "We're on the cusp of something. We're where the Wright brothers were in 1903. To our satisfaction we've demonstrated the equivalent of life and drag. While it's very modest, it's no more modest than that flight at Kitty Hawk." To move beyond first-flight status, Jackson has developed an ambitious 25-year plan, one that he believes would lead to a viable alternative to America's industrial farms. What he really needs, he says, is $5-million a year for the next 25 years. Since the institute's budget this year is just under $1-million — it comes from foundation grants and private contributions — he spends as much time raising money as he does in the field or the laboratory. § § §The analysis that Jackson set out in New Roots for Agriculture does not seem as countercultural today as it did in the 1970's. The negative effect of industrialized agriculture on the environment, on health, and on rural communities have been widely, if not universally, acknowledged. Some of the warnings that Jackson and like-minded scientists and environmentalists sounded more than 20 years ago seem prescient. For instance, in The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century (Cornell University Press, 1997), Gordon Conway, an agricultural ecologist who is president of the Rockefeller Foundation, cited widespread evidence that crop yields are no longer growing as rapidly as they did in the heyday of the green revolution. "The causes of this slowing in yield growth are not clear," he wrote, "although one factor is likely to be the cumulative effect of environmental degradation, partly caused by agriculture itself. The litany of loss is familiar. Soils are eroding and losing their fertility, precious water supplies are being squandered, rangeland overgrazed, forests destroyed and fisheries overexploited." Agricultural practices, Conway added, "have become a significant contributor to the global pollutants that affect the ozone layers and produce global warming. These changes are already beginning to have significant adverse consequences on agricultural production. There is also clear evidence of instances where pesticides, far from solving pest problems, make them worse. And, as we have long known, pesticides and nitrate fertilizers pose serious health hazards." § § §Inevitably, because his work involves plant breeding and because the issue has become front-page news, Jackson has been drawn into the debate over the use of genetic engineering and other biotechnological tools to redress some of the failings of conventional agriculture. While he is not unalterably opposed to any use of biotechnology, he is sharply critical of the mindset of many of its proponents, and he distrusts their motives: "I don't want to be a party for the corporate state to turn DNA into capital," he says. "And this is a technology that lends itself to capitalization and appropriation." He also warns that, if misused, biotechnology will lead to the human-induced degradation of the genomes of plant species. "What is being more or less ignored" in the rush to biotechnology, he says, "is that some of the same principles and processes that govern an ecosystem, like a forest or a prairie, also operate with genomes. The genome is a miniature ecosystem." In an article in the most recent issue of The Land Report, an institute publication, he wrote, "The genes within the genome interact with one another and collectively interact with the environment, all the way from the molecular and cellular level to the ecosystem at large. In other words, the architecture of the genome results from the context of the history of gene-carrying predecessors in times past. At the level we are talking about the world is grossly unknown, indeed unknowable. So much is subtle; so much is small effect." The harm "from the wholesale employment of the new forms of biotechnology," he added, "will come in the threat to the very architecture of the genomes of our major crops." Despite his deep reservations about biotechnology, his unwillingness to categorically reject it has drawn sharp criticism from hard-line opponents of genetic engineering. His response: "We need to worry about a deeply fundamentalist position of saying No to all new brands of biotechnology." Fundamentalism, he adds, "usually takes over where thought leaves off." Of the current debate, Jackson says, "We must make this subject as complicated as it is," rather than opt for "cheap and instantly gratifying solutions." That means, he says, proceeding with extreme caution, to avoid disrupting "nature's wisdom" — the resiliency built into a system that has evolved over millennia. The task, he wrote in New Roots for Agriculture, "is to build an agriculture that is resilient to human folly, an agriculture that rewards wisdom and patience." "We don't need one more breakthrough in agriculture," he said. "We need to stare hard at America's fields — for a long time — and then reach into the vast literature in evolutionary biology and ecology to learn the rules and laws at work on the land before we got here, and out of this knowledge, put together a new synthesis, a truly new paradigm for agriculture." Copyright 2000, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be posted, published, or redistributed without permission from The Chronicle.