This is Wes Jackson's vision for the future of agriculture: "An agriculture in which soil erosion on sloping ground is no longer a major problem. An agriculture with minimal fossil fuel input. An agriculture in which insects, pathogens and weeds are adequately managed by the system. An agriculture in which, finally, the Darwinian evolutionary ecological view is fully embraced by agricultural researchers."
the agriculture that prevails today, Jackson says it's a mistake.
More specifically, it's a topsoil-depleting, water-polluting,
This is not a
hippie speaking. Jackson is not a tree-hugging summer solstice
warlock. He is a geneticist, a Kansas Methodist with the cropped
hair and powerful build of a former football coach, which, in fact,
he is. Jackson co-founded The Land Institute 19 years ago. There,
he and a small team of researchers and interns run experiments on
275 acres of land - 175 of them under cultivation, the rest
unbroken prairie. Land Institute scientists "constantly measure our
work against the standards set by nature's prairie," according to
But Jackson isn't satisfied with being a
voice crying in the wilderness. He wants to change agriculture at
its roots. In Kansas, that means prevailing upon the agronomy
department at Kansas State University to see things his
And he has. In January, Kansas State and The
Land Institute issued a joint proposal called "Natural Systems
Agriculture." Their scientists want to incorporate some of the best
tricks of natural plant systems - holding onto topsoil, regulating
their own pests, fertilizing their own soil - into fields of crops.
George Ham, Kansas State's Associate Dean of
Agriculture and a proponent of the cooperative effort, calls the
program "a new paradigm." Jackson is more effusive. He considers it
"the most radical - in the right direction - document to come out
of a land-grant institution in this century."
An area eight times the size of Kansas has
been plowed for agriculture in this country, the vast majority of
it monocultures of annual crops like wheat, corn and sorghum.
Jackson estimates that about one-eighth of that land can take it. A
floodplain, for example, may have deep topsoil that is regularly
replenished and enriched by periodic floods.
Jackson doubts whether the vast majority of our cropland is that
resilient. Sloping fields and erodible, infertile soils can't
produce annual monocultures without sacrificing topsoil and
requiring fertilizers and pesticides. Rather than sacrificing what
Jackson calls the "ecological capital" of these farmlands, "we had
better rather precisely imitate the natural vegetative structure or
leave it alone."
This isn't a simple
proposition. The natural vegetative structure is precisely the
opposite of what has become our agricultural ideal. Uncultivated
landscapes are dominated by polycultures (an intermingling of plant
species), not monocultures; and perennials (plants that return each
year), not annuals. Perennial plants survive through their
extensive root systems, which hold onto topsoil like a huge, fine
filament net. But they don't produce much edible seed.
Yet the system can be tweaked, and that is where
Natural Systems Agriculture comes in. The project proposes to
create 10 "plant materials centers' across the country with teams
of scientists working to determine what kind of agriculture local
landscapes can tolerate. And they will work on producing plants
that combine the plentiful edible seeds yielded by annual plants
with the environmentally sustainable properties of wild perennials.
Common biological wisdom says it can't be done:
A plant can't burn the candle at both ends. The abundant seed
yields of an annual can't occur in a plant with the expansive root
systems of a perennial.
But scientists have found
an exception to this belief. It came in the form of a plant called
Tripsacum dactyloides, or eastern gama grass. Originally noticed by
a USDA scientist in Kansas, researchers found that a mutant form of
this perennial bunchgrass produces at least twice the weight of
seeds of its dominant variety - with no penalty to the vigor of the
rest of the plant.
Tripsacum dactyloides tastes
like corn. It contains three times the protein that corn does and
twice that of wheat. But it isn't a wonder plant. Without a husky
shell over its seeds, it's vulnerable to predation. The stalks that
support the seeds often break under their weight. It produces very
little pollen, and can't reproduce unless the dominant variety is
Clenton Owensby, a range science
professor at Kansas State, isn't particularly impressed. He points
out that the regular strain of gama grass is a notoriously low seed
producer, and that "two times a small amount is not a large
Owensby is enthusiastic about
polycultures of annual plants, whose various root systems utilize
more of the soil than monocultures: "They're reasonable things
because you have below-ground systems that don't compete with each
other." But he takes a dim view of the idea that perennials will
feed many people.
"Environmentally, it's an
absolutely marvelous idea," he says. "But as far as sustaining a
farmer out there making a living, it may not be. I'm not sure
productivity will ever come close to the typical monocultures we
Jackson considers all that to be so
much detail. What he cares about is laying the scientific
groundwork for change. Disproving the belief that there has to be a
trade-off between seed yield and plant growth is comparable, he
says, to what the Wright brothers accomplished with their first
flights at Kitty Hawk: "We haven't flown anyone across the
Atlantic," he says. "but we've demonstrated the equivalent of lift
The rules of the
Jackson and his cohorts aren't just
talking. His daughter, Laura - now an associate professor of
biology at the University of Northern Iowa - published a paper on
Tripsacum dactyloides in the academic journal Ecology last year.
Scientists affiliated with The Land Institute also published
scholarly papers concluding that polycultures can outyield
monocultures, and that polycultures are less vulnerable than
monocultures to pests and pathogens.
"I knew if
we just had an opinion, we'd be dead in the water," says Jackson,
who was once a tenured professor at the University of California at
Sacramento and received a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1992. By
publishing the academic papers, "we're following the rules of the
academy," says Jackson. "I don't object to that. I honor much of
the scientific tradition."
For their part,
mainstream scientists are increasingly listening.
Six years ago, George Ham, the head of KSU's
agronomy department, told The Atlantic Monthly that he thought The
Land Institute's work was "very good."
looking at something that's going to have a payoff in the long
term," he told the magazine. "Much longer than most of our projects
here at Kansas State."
These days, Ham has
practically linked arms with Jackson. "We're used to short-term
solutions to problems, and I think we need to look to longer-term
ones," he says.
Does he agree with Jackson's
view that agriculture has essentially been a mistake? "Not
necessarily," says Ham. "But I can see where he got the idea. What
Wes has proposed is a very workable alternative, and I think we
should spend considerable effort working on it."
Ham isn't alone.
think what Wes is saying is as revolutionary as it used to be,"
says KSU Associate Professor Paula Bramel-Cox, a plant breeder who
has worked with the Land Institute for a decade and is on its board
of directors. "I think that within land-grant universities there's
a lot of individuals who support the concepts of sustainable and
alternative agriculture. A lot of people are coming forward and
saying, "This is what I believe, too." "
attributes the change in part to new faculty who tend to be more
open to alternative agriculture than retiring faculty, and to
several grassroots groups emerging in recent years that pressure
the land grants to become more responsive to sustainable
As for Jackson, she says, "I think
he thought the future lay in the transfer of this work to land
grants where there were more opportunities for funding and wider
Jackson acknowledges the need for
mainstream approval if the project is to get the kind of political
support the work needs. "What does a congressman know?" he asks.
"What does a member of the administration know? That person doesn't
want to have just Land Institute hearsay; they want the validation
of a publicly funded body. That to me is totally understandable."
Jackson's view is rooted in history,
which makes his critique of agriculture both less personal and more
fundamental than that of many other critics. He doesn't blame
farmers for his conviction that agriculture is environmentally and
economically unsustainable; he blames Descartes and Newton. The
philosophers' beliefs respectively set humans apart from nature,
and said the natural world could be understood if its parts were
comprehended. At agricultural conferences where other panelists
worry about the 1995 Farm Bill and the emergence of the Ukraine as
an exporter of wheat, Jackson stretches the time line from both
ends. At one end, he refers to the difficulties Copernicus and
Galileo had convincing the church that the earth was not the center
of the universe. On the other, he talks about the time when the oil
From his view of the timeline, he sees
three untapped resources.
First: available land.
Over an area slightly larger than Iowa, highly erodible land has
been retired from cultivation in the last decade under the
federally-funded Conservation Reserve Program. Much of the land is
now covered with perennial plants. "There has been essentially no
soil erosion, hardly any fossil fuel inputs, hardly any alien
chemical inputs," says Jackson. "The only thing it didn't do was
produce a bountiful supply in weight of seeds."
Second: research on ecology. Over the last
half-century, ecological research has been "generated at public
expense, bought and paid for, waiting to be applied through
Third: unemployed scientists: "We
have lots of young Ph.D." s trained at great public expense in the
areas of ecology - plant ecology, soil ecology, microbial ecology.
Plant breeders. All of these young scientists - many of them on the
verge of driving taxi cabs - because the work isn't there," Jackson
Natural systems agriculture is "profoundly
different" from what usually passes for sustainable agriculture,
which generally means reducing the use of
is the accumulation of the best from tradition," says Jackson. "But
we're looking to nature as the measure and the standard."
Wisdom of the
The scientists hired for Natural
Systems Agriculture will be under 40, so that they'll see some
results of their experiments within their professional lifetimes.
Jackson says there could be results on the ground "in this side of
50 years if we get cracking. We could have modest results in 15
years; dramatic results in 25."
Each of the 10
proposed Natural Systems Agriculture teams will hire eight
ecologists and plant breeders. Each will also also hire an
environmental historian (-the most important member of the team,"
says Jackson) and a biotechnologist, (-whom we intend to pick on."
"I think the burden on the gene-splicer is to
convince the breeders and ecologists of his or her utility," says
Jackson. "I don't want some gee-whiz scientist. What we're really
talking about is the wisdom of the ecosystem. That system has to
work. You can't just grant immunity, autonomy, to one of the
features of the system. It's gotta be integrated. That's what the
whole discipline of ecology can teach the culture."
The program is angling for $2 million for its
first year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As more Plant
Materials Centers gear up, the budget will increase. Jackson
estimates it will cost about $750 million over the next 25 years.
"Peanuts!" roars Jackson. "Listen to this: The
bottom line is erosion costs American agriculture $44 billion each
year." He got the number from an article by Cornell Professor David
Pimentel published in the February 24 issue of Science magazine.
Pimentel called erosion a major threat to the sustainability and
productive capacity of agriculture. "During the last 40 years,"
wrote Pimentel, "nearly one-third of the world's arable land has
been lost by erosion and continues to be lost at a rate of more
than 10 million hectares (an area about the size of Kentucky) per
year. With the addition of a quarter of a million people each day,
the world population's food demand is increasing at a time when per
capita food productivity is beginning to decline."
Pimentel estimated it would cost $8.4 billion
per year to solve the problem in the United States alone. This is
five times the amount of money that state and federal sources
contribute to agricultural research at land-grant universities,
which, in 1990, amounted to $1.6 billion.
Natural Systems Agriculture's proposed 25-year,
three-quarters of a billion dollar budget pales next to what
erosion costs, but it dwarfs the funds the U.S. Department of
Agriculture reserves for sustainable agriculture. This year, $8.1
million was budgeted to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and
In the bleak funding atmosphere
of the sustainable agriculture movement, Jackson's expectations
have raised a few eyebrows.
"There ain't a lot of
money to go around these days," says Elizabeth Bird of the Center
for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska. "If funding were growing,
I doubt there'd be any question of (Natural Systems Agriculture's)
merit, but in order to get the best effect for the dollars
expended, I'd want to see it integrated with, or at least have
assurance that it's complementary to, other (sustainable
Jackson says he doesn't
want to take money away from the sustainable agriculture movement:
"What I want it taken away from is the tired old research agenda of
the high input boys," who specialize in chemicals and
Whether this will happen remains to be
seen. "The reality of funding agencies is they like to show
results," says Ham. "Funding is geared to short-term projects;
something like 3-5 years at the longest. This could take 25, 50, 75
Jackson, again, considers this so much
"I expect to get (funding) because
it is as different from what is going on in agriculture as the
airplane is different from the train. We're optimistic because
we're looking at nature as the measure and the standard, which is
very different than, "Here's what's worked in the past," and "Let's
try this." " n