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Institute leader gives lecture

Kristen Durbin | Thursday, March 29, 2012

With rising anxieties about population growth, global warming, fossil fuel use and the Earth’s food supply as a bleak backdrop, Dr. Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, explained his organization’s initiatives to change global agriculture in a public lecture Wednesday.

The Kansas-bred Jackson, who has worked as a professor, an author and a farmer, said the Institute’s work and research aims to solve the “problem of agriculture” presented by tilling annual seeds through the development of revolutionary perennial grain hybrids.

“The Land Institute is about breeding perennial grains that will allow us to bring processes to the farm that have been denied with the annual [grain planting] tradition,” Jackson said.

These hybrid perennial grains generate higher yields due to their complex root systems, a large ratio of vegetation to grain and a longer photosynthetic period, Jackson said, which makes them a sustainable alternative to annual planting practices that drain soil resources and require large amounts of carbon-rich energy.

“If these perennial plants reduce erosion risks, manage nutrients better, produce higher yields … what’s holding us up [from planting them]? What else do we need to hear? What do we do?” Jackson said. “With perennials, the ecosystem becomes a more powerful conceptual tool.”

Jackson outlined what he calls the “3.45-billion-year-old imperative” of all life to consume energy-rich carbon to sustain growth and its influence on monumental stages in the development of human civilization, including the first Mediterranean agricultural revolution, the use of forest carbon during the Bronze and Iron Ages and the discoveries of coal, natural gas and oil as sources of energy.

As humans became increasingly dependent on energy for agricultural production, policies and institutions changed accordingly, especially the passage of three influential American agricultural bills by 1914, Jackson said

“In [19th-century] Britain … people began to realize they didn’t need slaves if they had power and energy,” he said. “In Civil War America, the establishment of the land-grant college system democratized knowledge in every state and spread it throughout newly acquired territory.”

Jackson said the post-World War II development of the Haber-Bosch process of ammonia production from nitrogen is “responsible for 40 percent of the standing crop of homo sapiens today.”

But this innovation also began the transformation of modern American agriculture into a carbon-hungry, fuel-guzzling industry that relies on large government subsidies and has produced a “dead zone” at the end of the Mississippi River the size of New Jersey, Jackson said.

“As a general law, high energy destroys information of a cultural and biological variety,” he said.  

In addressing modern agricultural practices that rely on fossil fuel-derived fertilizers, annual grain subsidies and large-scale industrial farming, Jackson said the logical solution is to look to nature’s self-sustaining ecosystems as models of perennial polyculture and survival, such as tropics and grasslands.

“Those … ecosystems are real economies. They use … sunlight and recycle materials,” Jackson said. “The genius of the Kansas grasslands during the Dust Bowl years is that it survived, whereas [annual monoculture] crops died.”

Jackson said exploring the potential of ecosystem agriculture, or “agroecology,” as a model for sustainable agriculture presents a major challenge to human thinking, but its benefits could provide solutions to agricultural problems.

“If we look upward to the ecosystem level, there are answers to questions we haven’t learned to ask,” he said. “Since [Rene] Descartes and [Francis] Bacon, the hardest thing to overcome for our industrial minds … has been the reductive approach to problems that pays no attention to emergent properties present at every level.”

In order to reverse the destruction caused by current agricultural methods, Jackson said he and some of his colleagues in sustainable agriculture hope to implement sweeping changes in American farming practices over the next 50 years, with a goal of flipping grain percentages to 80 percent perennial and 20 percent annual.

Jackson said he has helped develop a 30-year mission for a sustainable “green revolution” that would send 110 Ph.D-level scientists to various locations around the globe to implement these new agricultural practices.

“The last green revolution gave us a tripling of yields, but its principles are not good,” he said. “The mission of the next synthesis is to move agriculture from an extractive to a renewable economy and rescue us from the fallen world.”