At 77, Jackson is a big man with big ideas.
A few weeks ago at the annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Kan. — a celebration, essentially, of true sustainability — I sat down with Wes Jackson to drink rich beer and eat delicious, chewy bread made from the perennial grain Kernza. The Kernza we ate was cultivated at the Land Institute, the festival’s sponsor and the organization Jackson founded here 37 years ago.
At 77, Jackson is a big man with big ideas. Clearly he was back then as well, when he became determined to change the face of agriculture from being dependent upon annual monoculture (that is, planting a new crop of a single plant each year) to one that includes perennial polyculture, with fields containing varieties of mutually complementary species, planted once, harvested seasonally but remaining in place for years.
Jackson has a biblical way of speaking: “The plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword,” he says. “But soil is more important than oil, and just as nonrenewable.” Soil loss is one of the biggest hidden costs of industrial agriculture — and it’s created at literally a glacial pace, maybe a quarter-inch per century. The increasingly popular no-till style of agriculture reduces soil loss but increases the need for herbicides. It’s a short-term solution, requiring that we poison the soil to save it.
Annual monoculture like that practiced in the Midwestern Corn Belt is one culprit. It produces the vast majority of our food, and much of that food — perhaps 70 percent of our calories — is from grasses, which produce edible seeds, or cereals. For 10,000 years we’ve plowed the soil, planted in spring and harvested in fall, one crop at a time.
In an essay he published 26 years ago, called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond theorized that this was essentially our downfall: by losing our hunter-gatherer roots and becoming dependent on agriculture, we made it possible for the human population to expand but paid the price in the often malnourishing, environmentally damaging system we have today.
That’s fascinating, and irreversible; barring a catastrophe that drastically reduces the human population, we’ll rely on agriculture for the foreseeable future. But if we look to the kind of systems Jackson talks about, we can markedly reduce the damage. “We don’t have to slay Goliath with a pebble,” he says of industrial agriculture. “We just have to quit using so much fertilizer and so many pesticides to shrink him to manageable proportions.”