The gospel according to Wes Jackson

He believes we can grow food without chemicals, plows or erosion

  • Wes Jackson

    Terry Evans
  • Cross-section shows soil-conserving properties of prairie roots

    Terry Evans
  • Goldenrod grows on the Kansas prairie

    Terry Evans
  • Kansas State Univ.'s Konza prairie, where researchers experiment

    Terry Evans

Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue on the West's land grant universities.

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."

As for the agriculture that prevails today, Jackson says it's a mistake. More specifically, it's a topsoil-depleting, water-polluting, petroleum-dependent mistake.

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 Jackson.

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 way.

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."

Roots and seeds

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.

But 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 nearby.

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 amount."

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 have today."

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 and drag."

The rules of the academy

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."

"They're 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.

"I don't 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.' "

She 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 agriculture.

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 application."

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."

History and science

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 runs out.

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 agriculture."

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 says.

Natural systems agriculture is "profoundly different" from what usually passes for sustainable agriculture, which generally means reducing the use of agrochemicals.

"Organic/sustainable agriculture 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 ecosystem

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 Education fund.

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 agriculture) programs."

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 machinery.

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 years."

Jackson, again, considers this so much white noise.

"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.' "

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