Perennial Grains and Soil Erosion with Wes Jackson

Perennial Grains and Soil Erosion with Wes Jackson

Wes Jackson, the current President of The Land Institute, was born in 1936 on a farm near Topeka, Kansas. After attending Kansas Wesleyan (B.A Biology, 1958), he studied botany (M.A. University of Kansas, 1960) and genetics (Ph.D. North Carolina State University, 1967). Jackson’s writings focus on themes of sustainability, agriculture and rural communities.

Industrialized farming techniques do more harm than good. One symptom of such farming practices? Soil erosion. To combat these pitfalls, scientists like Wes Jackson look to nature for inspiration. What do they find there? The power of perennial root systems.

Douglas Gayeton: What can we learn from natural systems?

Wes Jackson: Ecology can be drawn on to give us insight on how to maintain herbaceous perennial seed-producing policultures. Historically, we’ve been limited in the ability to do that and, as a consequence, we have over a hundred years of research in ecology and evolutionary biology just being put on the shelf. Since 1980, Long-term Ecological Research sites have been funded by the National Science Foundation to study how natural ecosystems work. However despite the millions of dollars spent, that knowledge just sits there. It all can be applied to agriculture. We’re able to take advantage of the efficiencies that are inherent within the natural integrities.

Douglas Gayeton: Can we actually talk about resilience and sustainability within the current agriculture systems?

Wes Jackson: No, because the current systems are fossil fuel dependent and are soil eroding. We’ve first must talk about how to move agriculture from an extractive economy to a renewable economy. If you have to tear the ground up every year and you don’t have those processes of the wild that run on contemporary sunlight and you’re forced to bring in fossil fuels, it’s not sustainable; the systems aren’t resilient. We were even losing soil before the Industrial Revolution, the history of earth abuse through agriculture goes all the way back at least to the Greeks and clearly the Romans.

Douglas Gayeton: How do we make people care about things like soil erosion?

Wes Jackson: As it stands in the World, we’ve had the third year in a row in which humans globally have eaten more food than what has been produced. The stocks are going down. Part of that has to do with drought, (which has to do with climate change) but much of that has to do with degraded soils – 30 million acres a year, according to the United Nations, is lost due to soil degradation. There was a study done showing that from 1700 to 2000 as much land was lost due to soil degradation as three times the total agricultural acreage of the US.

If people don’t get it, it’s because we’ve done a poor job of explaining the importance of soil. The only reason we’ve been able to offset the consequence of soil erosion is because we threw a lot of fossil fuel fertility at it. Natural gas is a feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer. Half as many fossil calories go into food production at the field level as we use for tractors. It’s a matter of ignorance. It’s a matter of getting the word out: soil is more important than oil.

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