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Is America on the Brink of a Food Crisis?

If we continue our offenses against the land, we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our economy.
 
 
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As everyone scrambles for a solution to the crises in the nation's economy, Wes Jackson suggests we look to nature's economy for some of the answers. With everyone focused on a stimulus package in the short term, he counsels that we pay more attention to the soil over the long haul.  

"We live off of what comes out of the soil, not what's in the bank," said Jackson, president of the Land Institute. "If we squander the ecological capital of the soil, the capital on paper won't much matter."  

Jackson doesn't minimize the threat of the current financial problems but argues that the new administration should consider a "50-year farm bill," which he and the writer/farmer Wendell Berry proposed in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month.

Central to such a bill would be soil. A plan for sustainable agriculture capable of producing healthful food has to come to solve the twin problems of soil erosion and contamination, said Jackson, who co-founded the research center in 1976 after leaving his job as a environmental studies professor at California State University, Sacramento.  

Jackson believes that a key part of the solution is in approaches to growing food that mimic nature instead of trying to subdue it. While Jackson and his fellow researchers at the Land Institute continue their work on natural systems agriculture, he also ponders how to turn the possibilities into policy. He spoke with me from his office in Salina, Kansas.  

Robert Jensen: This is a short-term culture, and federal policies typically are aimed at short-term results. Why the call for a farm bill that looks so far ahead, especially in tough economic times?  

Wes Jackson: For the past 50 or 60 years, we have followed industrialized agricultural policies that have increased the rate of destruction of productive farmland. For those 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe the absurd notion that as long as we have money we will have food. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy.  

We need to reverse that destructive process, which means recognizing the need for fundamental changes in the way agriculture is practiced. That requires thinking beyond the next quarterly earnings report of the agribusiness corporations and beyond this fiscal year of the feds. We need farm bills -- laid out in five-year segments, with a view to the next 50 years -- that can be mileposts for moving agriculture from an extractive to a renewable economy.  

RJ: What are some of the key aspects of a long-term solution?  

WJ: Support for soil conservation and protecting water resources have to be central. There needs to be funding for research on a different model for agriculture. And we have to avoid wasting any more resources on biofuels made from annual crops, especially corn, which is certain to exacerbate soil erosion, chemical contamination and a larger dead zone in the gulf.  

RJ: But it is true that most people, including those in the new administration, are focused on short-term problems in the financial and industrial economy. Is there any chance people -- especially people in an overwhelmingly urban nation -- will pay attention right now?  

WJ: Remember, if our agriculture is not sustainable then our food supply is not sustainable, and food is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs. Either we pay attention or we pay a huge price, not so far down the road. When we face the fact that civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland, it's clear that we don't really have a choice. Beyond that, changing the way agriculture is practiced would incorporate partial solutions to major problems that people do care about: climate change, overconsumption of energy, water problems. Yes, a 50-year bill is sensible right now.  

RJ: What would such a 50-year plan look like? What are the key features?  

WJ: We start by acknowledging the necessity of moving from an extractive, unsustainable economy to one that is renewable and sustainable, and the first place to look is to the production of the most basic commodity -- food. Once we face that necessity, we move to examining the possibilities for achieving this, recognizing that we have to act now while we still have slack, some room to move. Here's a sobering thought: If we don't achieve this sustainability first in agriculture, it's highly unlikely we will in any other sector of the economy and society. That's what makes this so imperative.

RJ: OK, start with the necessity: How is agriculture, as it is practiced today, an extractive enterprise that is unsustainable? 

WJ: All organisms are carbon-based and in a constant search for energy-rich carbon. About 10,000 years ago, humans moved from gathering/hunting to agriculture, tapping into the first major pool of energy-rich carbon -- the soil. It was agriculture that allowed us effectively to mine, as well as waste, the soil's carbon and other soil-bound nutrients. Humans went on to exploit the carbon of the forests, coal, oil and natural gas. But through all that, we've continued to practice agriculture that led to soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels. That's the basic problem of agriculture.  

Added to the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has given us pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. We have less soil and it is more degraded. We've masked that for years through the use of petrochemicals -- pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers. But that "solution" is no solution and is, in fact, part of the problem. There are no technological substitutes for healthy soil and no miraculous technological fixes for the problem of agriculture. We need to move past the industrial model and adopt an ecological model.  

RJ: This concern about chemicals has led to increased support for organic agriculture. Is that the solution?  

WJ: Organic agriculture is a start but by itself is insufficient. Eliminating the chemicals is only half the problem -- we still have to deal with soil erosion. Remember that we humans had organic agriculture until very recently, when we got industrial agriculture, and we still lost soil all along the way, for the last 10,000 years. There is good reason to believe we started the increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere about then (with the carbon compound of the soil being oxidized). It has only become a crisis in our time due to the scale increase of people and material and energy throughput.  

RJ: OK, so organic alone isn't the answer. Isn't that where no-till or minimum-till farming comes in?  

WJ: Those methods help deal with erosion, but as practiced today they require unacceptable levels of chemical inputs and end up eliminating biodiversity. Once again, it doesn't offer a way out of the extractive economy and the problem of contamination.  

RJ: So, where does that leave us?

WJ: Let's go back to basics: The core of this idea is the marriage of agriculture and ecology. As Wendell [Berry] says, we need to take nature as the measure. We need to look to nature for models of how to manage ecosystems in a sustainable fashion. At the Land Institute, we think that leads to perennial polycultures. Instead of annual crops grown in monocultures on an industrial model, we are looking at perennials in mixtures, which we think can solve a number of problems regarding erosion and contamination.  

RJ: Before I ask about the details, a basic question: Is that feasible, given the 6.5 billion people on the planet? Can such strategies focused on perennials produce enough food?  

WJ: First, let's recognize that without fossil fuels, the industrial-agriculture strategies we have now could not feed even the current population, and population growth makes these changes more important than ever. As populations grow, there's increasing pressure to put more and more marginal land into production, which increases the rate of degradation. A new model is essential.  

At the Land Institute, we've been working on perennializing the major crops and domesticating a few promising wild species. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can not only better protect the soil but also help reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use and toxic pollution. Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of water and soil nutrients would become much more efficient.  

RJ: Let's assume that natural systems agriculture and similar projects hold the promise you suggest. Those practices will have to be implemented in the real world, which is structured by the larger extractive economy in capitalism, at a time of crisis -- some would say, even, a time of collapse. What has to happen to make that possible?  

WJ: You're right that it's not just about plants and science; it's also about people and society. We think that protecting the soil is not only an ecological imperative but an opportunity for positive economic and cultural change as well. The proposals we're discussing would increase employment opportunities in agriculture -- sustainable farming will require more "eyes per acre," and replacing fossil-fuel energy with human energy and ecological knowledge makes good economic sense. With the reduced need for the hoe or plow, and land management relying more on fire and grazing, we draw on the naturalist instinct in nearly all of us, rather than presenting farm work as nothing but the "sweat of the brow" amid "thistles and thorns." This will be necessary to counter the longstanding denigration of the countryside and rural communities, which has been a feature of our so-called cosmopolitan culture.  

We're seeing that on a small scale now, with more young farmers staying on the land, with creative new endeavors in community-supported agriculture. People recognize that life is more than working in a small cubicle and consuming in a big-box store. People are hungry for good food, and they're also hungry for a good life. People are ready to explore what it would mean to come home, not to a romanticized vision of the past but to a sustainable future.  

RJ: How would a farm bill that you and Wendell might write differ from what we see today? 

WJ: The farm bills we've had largely address exports, commodity problems, subsidies and food programs. They all involve here-and-now concerns. A 50-year farm bill represents a vision that stresses the need to protect soil from erosion, cut the wastefulness of water, cut fossil-fuel dependence, eliminate toxins in soil and water, manage carefully the nitrogen of the soil, reduce dead zones, restore an agrarian way of life and preserve farmland from development. The best way to accomplish most of these goals is to gradually increase the number of acres with perennial vegetation, first of all through rotations and increase in the number of grass-fed dairies sprinkled about the countryside, and second, through progress toward perennializing the major crops. A good bill could help farmers accomplish those things.  

RJ: It's also likely that many people reading this will dismiss you as idealistic, as unrealistic. How would you answer that?  

WJ: These are the same people who believe it's realistic to continue practices they know to be unsustainable. The basic choice is simple: Do we want to work at coming up with a system that can produce healthful food and healthy communities, one that is economically and ecologically viable? Or do we want to continue to contaminate our soil and water as we watch that soil continue to be eroded by that water? That contamination and erosion are both material reality and metaphor for our cultural and economic condition.  

Look, I'm a scientist from the countryside, which means I have spent my life dealing with reality in research and on the farm. These are necessary and possible goals. Without the necessity, it may be considered grandiose. Without the possibility, it could be regarded as grandiose. The test for grandiosity, in my view, fails. As a nation, we are blessed with some of the world's best soils. Increasingly, city people want healthier and safer food. And we're at a political moment when everybody and his dog is talking about the need for change. So, let's get to it.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas, Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Radical Politics in the Prophetic Voice, will be published in 2009 by Soft Skull Press. He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007).