Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

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Challenges Facing Kansans: Environmental, Economic and Political

Publication: Kansas Day Lecture at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas

Author: Wes Jackson

A version of this article was presented as the Kansas Day Lecture at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, on January 29, 2001

On this date, 140 years ago, Kansas became the only state that had been or would ever be admitted to the Union as a free state by popular sovereignty. Seventy-three days later, the war would come after Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter. Kansas, which had already bled for the cause, would send to it a higher percentage of its young men and boys than any other state. Nearly two years after we had become a state, Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The abolitionist Puritans from New England had already ratified that proclamation beginning seven years earlier with their earnest commitment to freedom for all, not slavery for some. We were very much in the limelight during those territorial years. Longfellow, Emerson, Holmes and Lowell, among others of our nation’s intellectuals, sang our praises. Henry David Thoreau of Concord rang the bell exhorting his fellow townsmen to support John Brown. Countless idealists were alive then, “unrealistic idealists” some said, but idealists who helped launch our state to realities more lofty than what they might have been. Surely, from 1854 to 1865 was our highest moment. It was only through these bloody and political difficulties that Kansas would be represented among the stars of the union, hence our motto Ad astra per aspera—”To the stars through difficulties.” No matter that most of the immigrants who would soon follow were from the middle states and not Puritans—the ideal stuck. We have had other high moments in our state since. The Populist movement was notable. We endured the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, hot and cold weather before and since, and the jokes about Carrie Nation, Sockless Jerry Simpson and Toto. We have endured the ignorant and the snob from outside. More recently we have had to endure the condescension of numerous enlightened humans about the decision of the Kansas Board of Education regarding the teaching of evolution. The importance of evolutionary thinking is what I have elected to feature as a way of addressing the ecological problems of Kansas. A development that is probably not widely known to the lay public is that the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology have almost completely converged. I am a geneticist and therefore an evolutionary biologist. I was not raised as such. I was raised in a creationist household. Perhaps that is the reason I have no anger or resentment toward those pushing a creationist agenda for education in our schools. I would have to be angry or resentful toward too many people now dead who loved me and too many alive who love me still. For some very practical reasons, which I will spell out, I am pleased that the mix on the Kansas Board of Education has changed, but for the humane reasons just mentioned, I cannot celebrate the victory. First, a little more history. Two years before Kansas would become a state, in 1859 Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species appeared in London bookstores. For about as long as we have been a state, Darwin’s insight has gradually become the organizing framework for biologists worldwide. It has been a journey filled with minute details being added here and there up and down the hierarchy of the structure of all life. Even though it is an idea that is still being fine-tuned, it is a powerful one that holds at all levels of life all over our beautiful planet. It holds at the level of basic chemistry surrounding the carbon molecule in the chain of life. It holds at the next level up, the cellular level, and continues to the tissue level, the organ level, the organ system level, the organism level, and even to the level of the ecosystem and the ecosphere beyond. It is coherent, it makes sense, it has no internal contradictions. It holds for life forms at the equator and at the poles. It holds for life at the top of Mount Everest and at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. In the language of modern science, Darwin’s idea is robust. If the reality is so “everywhere,” you might ask, why has it yet to be fully internalized at the cultural level? Why was it even an issue for our Kansas Board of Education? There is an unsatisfying short answer, but an answer that too many of my fellow evolutionists miss: Cultural and regional history is nearly always more of a factor in shaping our values than formal education. Even if there were time in this forum for a longer answer, that answer would be incomplete. My sense is that people reject evolutionary science because science generally has been twisted, turned into an ideology at times, an ideology that wants to take the place of religion. The esteemed theologian Huston Smith, an evolutionary thinker himself, during the 1999 controversy here in Kansas advised the national organization of biology teachers to be more moderate. U.S. science teachers, he said, should tell their students something like the following: “There is so much that we still do not know that plenty of room remains for you to fill in the gaps with your own philosophic or religious conviction.” That advice seems plenty good to me. Any attempt to scientifically explain countless realities in our everyday experience rests on pure speculation—values, beauty, ultimate meaning of existence, why anything, why not nothing. More serious than creationists and evolutionists arguing with one another, in my view, the problem is that most biologists, even evolutionary biologists, have failed to adopt the implications of this insight both philosophically and in practice. In the 142 years since Darwin, it is understandable why the common culture might have failed to deeply internalize the implications of his insight, but why so with so many biologists? There is at least one good reason why. We live in a world in which the dominating idea is to place priority on the parts of things over the whole. This is not a bad practice provided we acknowledge that the world is not like the method. The successes from this reductive approach date back at least to the early history of modern science around 1600, with Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Bacon said that we must bend nature to our will, and Descartes insisted on breaking a problem down to the point in which there is no ambiguity. The ideas of these two giants of early science had a 250-year running start on Darwin. Their thinking would suggest that if dead sheep carcasses can be useful for other creatures, then they are resources and nothing but. A Deep Darwinian, on the other hand, would not feed dead sheep to cattle. Instead, the Darwinian would begin by acknowledging that during the long evolutionary history of cattle, nature’s ecosystems shaped them as savanna grazers—herbivores, not carnivores or omnivores. Ecological contexts not of our making account for most of the way they are, just as other ecological contexts shaped the chicken, which is still fundamentally a jungle fowl, and the hog, which is still basically a forest animal. Were our culture more enlightened in an evolutionary and ecological sense, the large confinement operations scattered around our state would be seen as health hazards to humans as well as livestock. In addition, no chickens, no hogs and no cattle would receive antibiotics so indiscriminately and force microbes to evolve resistance, reducing the drugs’ potential utility for humans. So, here is the first lesson derived from evolutionary ecological thinking: the serious inevitable health implications, not only for our domesticated species, but also for us. In the long run, an Evolution Protection Agency might be more important than an Environmental Protection Agency. Evolutionary thinking would have prevented another problem. Deep Darwinians would not stand by as chemicals with which we have little or no evolutionary experience are spread so widely. Such chemicals would be regarded as guilty until proven innocent. The reason is simple. Humans whose profession is chemistry with a desired product in mind can draw on most of the inventory of elements we see represented on the periodic chart. Relatively simple reagent designs can be created in the lab and that is what the American chemist has featured. What is wrong with that? Simply this: Most of the elements on that table are not common in the environments in which life forms live. We humans have taken them from mines or from low concentrations spread over the land or in the waters and brought them in contact with our daily lives. Of course Nature practices chemistry too, and when it involves life, she operates with more restrictions in the employment of a number of elements. Nature used those few elements common where life exists. In doing so, she had to be smarter—to build more elaborate or complicated reagent designs. It would come as no surprise to a Darwinian that so many of the chemicals made from elements outside the common realm of life are toxic. Sometimes exposure, even in small quantities—in parts per billion—kill. Deep Darwinians might not say, “No” to the introduction of the uncommon elements into the life stream, but they would say, “Watch it” and “Let’s check it out.” So, here is a second outcome of evolutionary-ecological thinking at a deep level. The small percentage of elements we see on the periodic chart that makes up life forms is, generally speaking, more trustable than combinations involving other elements. Now for a third benefit from evolutionary-ecological thinking. This has to do with our ability to wisely handle energy densities and energy quantities beyond that of our Paleolithic ancestors 10,000 years ago. We have yet to learn how to live the way nature’s ecosystems have worked over the millions of years. Most scientists steeped in ecology are schooled in looking at energy flow through nature’s ecosystems, be they salt marshes, alpine meadows, tropical rain forests or prairie. Millions of years of trial and error in countless energy wars among nature’s life forms have yielded brilliant couplings of nature’s myriad subsystems. Energy efficiency and material recycling are the norm. Therefore, any proposed disturbance to Nature’s integrities makes the Deep Darwinian cautious. To disturb an ancient pattern or to suppose that we can make patterns with impunity is a form of hubris, something the ancient Greeks warned us about more than two millennia ago. And so, here is a third practical application of evolutionary-ecological thinking. To expect humans to use inflated energy budgets as we do in agriculture and elsewhere without promoting undesirable feedback, which may require a long time for repair, is expecting too much. Humans are the major contributors to the greenhouse effect and global warming due to the tons of fossil carbon we spew into the atmosphere each year. Economic growth has depended on this increased energy consumption. The challenge before us is to put our true creative potential to the test and measure our progress by mileposts we set for reduced energy consumption, especially of the fossil fuel and nuclear forms. Against this background, what is the state of our state? Around the time I was invited to deliver this lecture, I went to my long-time colleague at The Land Institute, Dr. Marty Bender, director of our Sunshine Farm project, for help to gather facts about Kansas. Marty is an energy scholar as well as an ecologist. He began at once to collect and funnel reports to me and to summarize numerous findings. At this point, I wish to thank him for his fine effort on behalf of all Kansans.

Chemical Use

We’ll consider the chemical problem first. The average Kansas farmer has handled nearly 5,000 pounds of active-ingredient pesticides, surely receiving chronic exposure to minute droplets.(1) This is not a lifetime exposure, but is merely an average over the range of farmers from beginners to retirement. Epidemiological studies in Kansas and elsewhere in the Midwest have shown that compared with the general U.S. population, farmers have higher age-adjusted incidence rates for cancers that are suspected to involve suppression of the immune system. These are cancers of the brain, prostate and blood, and immune system diseases such as leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. This is despite the fact that farmers are healthier overall than other men of the same ages—they experience less heart disease and lung cancer. A Deep Darwinian would not be surprised at these results given the farmers’ heavy exposure to pesticides with elements that have been uncommon where life resides—until humans put them there. The cancers just mentioned have also been increasing in incidence in the general U.S. population despite the decline in overall cancer incidence since 1992. (We are not counting the large overall lung cancer decline here.) Why just recently? The general U.S. population has likewise been exposed to these chemicals, but only since the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise in lawn care services, home use of weed and insect killers, and self-service gasoline stations. So, the farmer is a mine canary. Urban folks should not assume that epidemiological studies of cancer in farmers are of little relevance to themselves. As pointed out by researchers at the National Cancer Institute, particularly native Kansan Dr. Aaron Blair, the increases for the two populations might be due mainly to two factors, pesticides and petrochemicals like gasoline. Farmers have been exposed to pesticides since the rise of the U.S. petrochemical industry in the 1940s and 1950s, and have been filling their own fuel tanks since the early 20th century. Another family of chemicals proven to have serious effects on life forms are those molecules that are chemical analogs to the molecules that life features. They are so structurally close they can “trick” the cells into “thinking” they are friendly to life when in fact they are disrupters of life.


Let’s look at the energy picture for our state. Here we are talking about wasteful consumption and the fossil carbon release that contributes to the greenhouse effect—global warming.

  • Across all economic sectors, the average Kansan annually consumes the equivalent of half a highway gasoline transport tanker.
  • Annual extraction of oil in Kansas peaked in 1956, and 30 percent of annual Kansas energy use is oil.
  • Annual extraction of natural gas in Kansas peaked in 1970, and natural gas is 50 percent of our yearly Kansas energy use.
  • The dwindling Hugoton Field in southwestern Kansas was once the world’s largest natural gas field. Even so, if that were the only supply of natural gas in the nation, we would consume all of it in 1.2 years.
  • In a 1990 energy study, Kansas ranked in the top five of the most energy-wasteful states in the nation. Kansas is seventh in per capita energy use, tenth in per capita oil use, and dead last in per capita renewable energy.


It is easier to get people more excited about water than soil, perhaps because we ourselves are more water than soil. Even though the recharge rate of our aquifers is faster than the recharge rate of our soils, there is more hand wringing over Kansas water. There are serious water problems:

  • In southwestern Kansas, the Ogallala aquifer depth has declined 40-50 percent since pre-development.
  • Two-thirds of the groundwater-irrigated acreage in Kansas is in areas of declining groundwater, most of it not as severe as southwestern Kansas. The good news is that one-third is not experiencing declining groundwater. It is heartening to see that Governor Graves has set a goal for 2020 to move Kansas irrigation away from an extractive economy to a renewable one.
  • Half of the watersheds in the nation have good water, but in Kansas only one-fourth of the watersheds are good. Conversely, one-fifth of the watersheds in the nation have poor water, but in Kansas it is two-fifths.
  • In a 1990 EPA report, Kansas was in the bottom five states in the U.S. in percentage of river miles that were swimmable only 5 percent.
  • In a 1998 EPA report, in terms of absolute miles of impaired river and shoreline, Kansas ranked second worst in the nation from pathogens, third worst from inorganics and toxics, and ninth worst from pesticides.(2)
  • According to the Kansas Natural Resource Council, Kansas ranks dead last, meaning the worst in the nation, for surface water pollution under the Clean Water Act, and forty-fourth in agricultural pollution.

Industrial Agriculture: A Failure in Its Own Terms

We often forget the culture part of agriculture. And to the extent that we do, agriculture is just a business that we now call agri-business. But if we are to be serious in addressing the question “What are people for?” then we have to look at the culture as a whole. Here the report card is not so good and, of course, Kansas is not alone. With the decline of agri-culture and the movement to agri-business, we can now see that agri-business has failed. According to the 2000 report of the annual Kansas Farm Facts by the Kansas Board of Agriculture, 89 percent of Kansas net farm income in 1999 was from the $20 billion federal bailout of U.S. agriculture. Agri-business is failing in its own terms and we call that failure “efficiency.” For every 100 farmers our state had a century ago, we now have 40. For every 100 milk cows in 1930, we now have eleven. For every 100 acres devoted to commercial vegetables in 1930, by 1980 we had 13. So, crop diversity is down, pollution is up—are times better? It doesn’t seem so. Income for the bottom fifth of our population declined 7 percent from the average for 1988-90 to that for 1996-98. It did not decline for the nation overall. We could be the exemplary agricultural state, for we are second in the U.S. in absolute acreage of prime farmland. (Kansas has 23 million acres.) We Kansans now represent less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. For many years we maintained 1 percent. To paint the picture so that we see the global reality of the small number of people in the U.S., all we have to do is shrink the population of the earth to a village of 100 people with all of the current ratios remaining constant. Six of those 100 people would be Americans and possess 59 percent of the world’s wealth. Rather than this being bad news, we can take heart in the fact that this is the country with enough agricultural slack to allow us to take bold steps. Moreover, because of Kansas’s small population and second-largest acreage of prairie-created farm ground, we are among the most fortunate. In the long run, we could afford to do without those alien chemicals. We could set some mileposts. We could pledge to cut all biocides in half in three or five years, for example, and nearly eliminate them in a decade or so. Am I optimistic that this can happen? Yes! Am I optimistic that it will happen? No! But I am hopeful. The message of Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, with the double meaning the title implies, is nearly a quarter-century old now and is being played out with consequences for rural life far worse than foreseen when his book was published. That is why I am not optimistic. On the other hand, thinking of our possibilities for agrarian life, one need only to think to the last century here in Kansas. William Allen White, then editor of the Emporia Gazette, could boast in 1912 that “the county in the United States with the largest assessed valuation was Marion County, Kansas. … Marion County happened to have a larger per capita of bank deposits than any other American county. … Yet no man in Marion County was rated as a millionaire, and the jails and poorhouses were practically empty. The great per capita of wealth was actually distributed among the people who earned it.” I am hopefulbecause we have examples of what once was. Rural America, in general, was better off then than now with respect to the virtues White described. Because of this precedent, we are free to speculate. It is neither hopeless romanticism nor mere nostalgia to think on the economic and policy measures responsible for such a viable rural community life where no one is a millionaire and where the jails and poorhouses are practically empty. I understand how knowing that history and exploring what would be necessary to re-establish those virtues can make us pessimistic about the sought-for possibility becoming a reality. The precedent makes me hopeful and at times optimistic that the time will come when a new economics will have replaced the current narrow emphasis. The time I have in mind will come when we gain clarity that the usual small owner-operated farm (family or otherwise) will be revealed as more sound economically, as well as ecologically and culturally, than the large industrial one. It will come when we consider the long term, when we begin to draw our boundaries of consideration to overlap the boundaries of causation, when we begin to factor in the cost of cancer treatment against the benefits of the pesticides, when we begin to count the cost of endocrine disruption leading to human infertility and the reduced natural fertility of the soil. When that time comes, soil, air and water health and human health will be one subject. The social costs of large-scale production will be factored in. The tragedy is that in the interim even more of the cultural seed stock—rural people—will have been forced to leave the small towns and rural communities. The bulk of modern economists using the language of economic determinism will have encouraged the exodus. Finding replacements for this culture seed stock will be difficult, for so few will be around who have been raised to farming. It is one thing for economists to describe the current reality for rural people in terms of the limits of the modern models and current economic reality in dollars. That is understandable and necessary. But what about a spirited attempt on the part of university economists to expand the boundary of consideration beyond the reach of their simple models to include the social, ecological and health costs, and thus aggressively promote the necessary public policy? One source of hope for me comes out of Europe. The debate among European Union Parliament members, as well as within each European government, about preserving the small village-agrarian way of life is less about tourists and tradition than about the practical necessity of future food security. It is about a practical necessity to avoid vulnerability. It comes as a counter-response to importing all food where production is “uneconomic.” Although the discussion is more active in Europe, one suspects that voices for the small farms are in the minority there, too, and it is possible that those voices will be swamped by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. For half a century now, countless agricultural economists have said, “Get big or get out.” Government economists with Ph.D.s gave us the “Freedom to Farm” bill and influenced the NAFTA and GATT and World Trade Organization initiatives. We hear little about soil erosion, chemical contamination of the countryside, and fossil fuel dependency for fertility and traction. Infinite resources and infinite substitutability seem to be the abstractions guiding economic thinking. Evolutionary-ecological thinking has to be as much in the thinking of economists of the future as among the biologists. Should they become steeped in evolutionary-ecological thinking, economists could help force knowledge out of its categories. Chemistry and history currently are not taught together in our schools, but they are together on our landscape. Featuring questions that go beyond the available answers may be the closest analog to every mother’s prayer that acknowledges both foreseen and unforeseeable pitfalls awaiting each child who steps out on life’s journey. The forward stampede of technology pushes its way into the world, increasing consumer demand when we should be increasing efficiency and reducing throughput. Whether it is computers or freeways being proposed, few economists seem to say, “We better back off,” or think how to radically redesign transportation that would do better with less. I remain hopeful that the day will come when it is otherwise.


My life span misses a few years of going halfway back to the day Kansas became a state. In that 65 years I have witnessed numerous heroic moments by many good people in our state. For six decades, I have seen tempers rise and fall over evolution, an issue that will not be settled soon. The Scopes trial in Tennessee did not settle the question, nor did the play “Inherit the Wind.” The recent election of the Board of Education with the majority on the evolution side will not settle the question either, mainly because our cultural and regional history is likely to override the power of education for decades to come. Although I am promoting an evolutionary-ecological worldview, that, too, has the potential to be perverted. Evolution has been used to condone bad behavior such as using the “survival of the fittest” concept to justify modern capitalism. In the early part of the last century eugenics was employed in ways we do not wish to remember, most especially in Hitler’s Germany. Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson stretched genetic determinism too far in his sociobiology book, as did Richard Dawkins’s book on the selfish gene. There will always be the temptation to misuse the evolutionary-ecological worldview. On the more positive side, evolutionary biology and ecology continue to advance in positive ways. It is being applied now to help solve both public health and environmental problems. Great possibilities lie before us in Kansas. We are well positioned to provide positive leadership because of our rich tradition. All we need do is reflect on the days we were a territory, the days of Bleeding Kansas, through the Civil War years, to the time of the Populist movement, and through our endurance of the Great Depression while coping with the Dust Bowl. Those are our high moments. We can build on them. Given our recent report card, we are now failing to meet the expectations of our ancestors. We have more good qualities than we have been exercising. Insights into evolutionary biology and ecology can assist us. But nothing can substitute for the virtues of our ancestors: discipline and restraint, frugality and thrift, justice and mercy, and a strong sense of oughtness.


(1) Our 65,000 Kansas farmers each year handle about 14 million pounds of active-ingredient pesticides, or about 215 pounds per farmer. (In any given year Kansas farmers of all adult ages have farmed an average 23 years.) These numbers come from 1997, 1992 and 1987 USDA Census of Agriculture and relate directly to epidemiological studies of cancer in farmers of all adult ages.
(2) We have over 15,000 miles of river and shoreline in Kansas. These three general pollutants impaired nearly 10,000 miles due to pathogens, more than 3,600 miles due to inorganics and toxics, and 435 miles due to pesticides.

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