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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Wes Jackson: Prairie Revolutionary

Air Date: Week of January 17, 1997

Steve Curwood talks with prairie and agriculture expert Wes Jackson about his recent book Becoming Native to This Place published by Counterpoint Press. Nature doesn't grow her plants in rows, and this leading agricultural thinker says that to get better long-term results, farmers shouldn't plant them that way either. Jackson is the founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For years many researchers have challenged chemically intensive farming, seeking instead to modernize the organic methods of earlier generations. But one group of investigators has gone beyond the organic approach to what they say is truly sustainable agriculture. For 20 years the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has wrestled with the main paradox of growing food: the plowing and planting, even if no chemicals are used, deplete the ecological capital on which harvests depend: the soil. Instead, these researchers are trying to develop cultivation practices based on natural systems that conserve soil as they produce food, recycle their own nutrients, and use only the sun for power. Sound like a dream? Nature does this every day, from tall grass prairies to tropical rainforests, and we can do it, too, says Wes Jackson. Mr. Jackson is the founder of the Land Institute and the author of a new book of essays from Counterpoint Press called Becoming Native To This Place. He joins us now to tell us about the revolution in agronomy research he thinks is in order. Mr. Jackson, welcome.

JACKSON: Well, I'm happy to be here.

CURWOOD: I understand that you want to raise $750 million from private foundations, the government, and get land grant colleges to work on a brand new way to grow food. That's a lot of money, isn't it?

JACKSON: Well, it's not much money, when one considers that soil erosion, according to Dave Pimentel and his group at Cornell University, costs about $44 billion a year.

CURWOOD: Forty-four billion a year.

JACKSON: Yeah, that's right.

CURWOOD: And you would spend $750 million over how many years?

JACKSON: Twenty-five years.

CURWOOD: Okay. But why should we do this? I mean, why should we change the course of research on sustainable agriculture? I mean, it seems that there are some pretty good ideas out there right now for growing food without chemicals, controlling pests with beneficial bugs and the like. And research is going forward in these areas an the ideas are catching on. Why not work within this view of sustainable agriculture?

JACKSON: Well, essentially all of our high-yielding crops are annuals, or treated as such. Which means that you have to tear the ground up every year. And if you tear up the ground on sloping hillsides you're going to have soil erosion. And the United States, it's been variously estimated, has lost about half of its topsoil already. And so we're going to have to think of better ways to keep the soil intact.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, you want to change the system to protect our soil. Anything else you want to change by changing the system in such a fundamental way?

JACKSON: Well, if we look at the way Nature's ecosystems work, what we see is they feature material recycling and they run on sunlight. And if you look at the structure of those systems, they feature diversity of vegetative structure. So if you look at, say, a never-plowed native prairie, you don't find just one species out there. What you find is warm season grasses, cool season grasses, legumes, members of the sunflower family, as sort of the 4 principal groups. And so, what we're promoting is an agriculture which would mimic that vegetative structure to some degree.

CURWOOD: You're talking about having a polyculture. You're talking about having different plants growing at the same time instead of having a monoculture, just one crop growing.

JACKSON: That's right. But it's not a mere polyculture. We want to come as close as is practical to imitating the vegetative structure of a natural ecosystem, so that we can take advantage of the natural integrities inherent within such a system.

CURWOOD: And what are those advantages?

JACKSON: Well, because of species diversity, you have chemical diversity. So it would take a tremendous enzyme system on the part of an insect or a pathogen to give you the epidemic. That system also sponsors its own nitrogen fertility. Whereas in America's fields it takes about 1.8 times as many fossil calories to sponsor nitrogen fertility as for traction, to run the tractors and the combines, because natural gas is the feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer. Also, there is a tendency for what we might call genetic truncation of our major crops, whereas a native prairie features species diversity. So what we're saying is that if we can begin to farm like the forest or farm like the prairie, then we might be able to move away from an extractive economy in agriculture to a renewable one.

CURWOOD: So you're saying we should grow the way that nature grows.

JACKSON: That's right.

CURWOOD: But wait a second here. How are we going to eat this way? Isn't it true that over the millennia, humans have learned to farm in a way that gets us food? This polyculture approach, these perennial plants you're talking about, they don't have a whole lot of food value for the human community.

JACKSON: Well, that's not true. What has been demonstrated through research now, that a plant can have an increase in seed yield at no tradeoff cost to the plant.

CURWOOD: By high seed yield you mean food value.

JACKSON: Well, but well having nutritional profile equivalent to the major crops. Now, what that means is that a central tenet of life's history theory, an evolutionary consideration, has been overturned, and allows us then to move forward and think about wild species that are perennial becoming domesticated, and the perennialization through breeding, and maybe even some gee whiz genetic bioengineering. I tend to be somewhat skeptical about that, but I will hold still for those possibilities. The development of perennialization in our major crops, which would then be put in combinations that are somewhat parallel to the kinds of combinations we see in a never-plowed native prairie.

CURWOOD: So in other words, in 25 years, Wes Jackson's dream might be a field that is filled with all kinds of things that grow that we could eat or maybe not eat. We might find the perennialized version of corn growing with rye, growing with --

JACKSON: Soybeans --

CURWOOD: Soybeans.

JACKSON: Or growing where some wild legume that has been domesticated and is found to be edible, have a nutritional profile similar to that of soybean. What we have done is we've announced a Kitty Hawk.

CURWOOD: Kitty Hawk?

JACKSON: A Kitty Hawk. We're saying we're where the Wright Brothers were on December 17th, 1903. We don't have anything that will carry 250 people across the Atlantic, but we've demonstrated the equivalent of lift and drag, you might say. So what we're now calling for is what we might call the wind tunnel phase. And it would have been silly to send the Wright Brothers back to their Dayton bicycle shop and tell them to build a 747 or an SST or whatever. This next round is going to take a lot of people and really not very much money, but certainly more money than the Land Institute has been spending in its research efforts.

CURWOOD: Some $750 million, you said.

JACKSON: Well, now, I'm willing to back off of that considerably. That was what I called my wildest fantasy, where we would have 10 major research centers around the country. If we could have just one and a cost of $5 million a year, in the 15 to 25 year time frame, we could have a fundamentally different agriculture appearing on the American landscape early next century.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Wes Jackson is founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Thank you so much, sir.

JACKSON: Well, thank you.



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