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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.