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Genetics Professor Mixes Science and Pragmatism to Create 'Sustainable Agriculture' - 2003-03-05


Farmers in America's central Great Plains have been planting their crops annually for generations. Year after year, the soil has turned those plantings into harvests. But erosion, insects, drought, and the effects of chemicals have taken their toll on the land.

As he thought about this 30 years ago, a California genetics professor remembered the hardy prairie of his native Kansas. He wondered whether food grains could be grown perennially, just like the prairie's drought, and insect-resistant grasses. So Wes Jackson went back to Kansas to find out.

Now in his late 60s, one of American agriculture's notable contrarians is more rumpled and thicker in the waist than he was as a Kansas farmboy, coasting through what he calls "one of the most misspent youths in the history of the planet."

Not until college would Wes Jackson take much besides football and girlfriends seriously. But his parents' aphorisms about thrift, discipline, restraint, and respect for the land slowly meshed with his own intellectual curiosity and with students' demands that science improve daily life.

"Students were screamin' for relevance at that time. And so in my biology class, I had given them sort of the classical stuff, and they wanted relevance. So, you know, I clipped and tore and Xeroxed [timely articles] and then began to see that the population problem is a serious problem. Resource depletion is a serious problem. Chemical contamination and environmental destruction were all a part of one fabric," Mr. Jackson said.

So in 1976 this brilliant and widely published geneticist returned to his roots, literally, and founded a combination farm and think tank called the Land Institute, outside the central Kansas city of Salina. Mr. Jackson still runs the operation from a tiny cabin next to what he calls the "sunshine farm," a 60-hectare labyrinth of test fields.

In bluejeans and workshirt, he reclines in a squeaky chair with his feet propped up on his desk next to disheveled piles of papers - a pot-bellied stove keeping the flatland chill at bay.

In ways befitting an intellectual luminary, for Mr. Jackson was awarded the prestigious, $25 million MacArthur "genius" grant, he takes the conversation in a hundred directions, not all of which the uninitiated listener can follow.

The aphorisms reappear, as in "We don't want to get so far away from the wheel that we can't affect its turn." Other references, bundled inside discussions about "thru-puts" and "ecological capital" are even more obscure. For instance, Mr. Jackon points out, "What we will be doing is developing elegant solutions predicated on the uniqueness of place."

The 24-person Land Institute staff now includes several other doctors of agronomy and ecology who are Jackson disciples. Their goal is to develop what they call "sustainable" agriculture based on deep-rooted perennial crops that mimic a prairie by fertilizing themselves, resisting insects and weeds, and popping out of the ground year after year. Mr. Jackson points to a number of plots where the scientists have succeeded in growing mixtures of wheat, sorghum, soybeans, and corn.

"We've gotta start thinking about a different way to live here. And what can inform that, I think, is to look at the way nature's life forms have managed over the millions of years to get it shaken down - the ecosystems, the cellular level - all levels of organization."

The Land Institute's approach may work in a microcosm, but going large-scale presents problems. None, Wes Jackson insists, is insurmountable.

One issue is that melding various species into a sort of granola-of-the-fields, Wes Jackson calls it an "ecological mosaic", takes time - a long time. They've been at it a quarter-century. Plant breeding, Mr. Jackson reminds you, is not a science that you can hurry, and he admits he'll probably not live to see the day when yields are sufficient that farmers will widely embrace the polyculture idea.

"But, if you're workin' on something that you can finish in your lifetime, you're not thinkin' big enough," Mr. Jackson said.

Of course, only so many people like granola; Americans, especially, are used to their bowls of just corn flakes or wheat biscuits. Not a problem, says Wes Jackson. The test farm employs machines that can harvest mixed grains, capture the seeds, and sort them perfectly.

The institute's biggest hurdle, Mr. Jackson says, will be crossing swords with what he calls the "corporate culture" that makes billions of dollars selling farmers pesticides, fertilizers, and the machinery needed to perpetuate the annual crop cycle.

Wes Jackson predicts there will be powerful interests aligned against any switch from what he calls wasteful, harmful - but for some, profitable - annual farming.

"Oh, I think some people in ag schools think I'm a nut - maybe the majority. But I have read a fair amount about the history of agriculture and civilizations," he said. "There's the great civilization of the Sumerians that went down the tubes when they screwed up their agricultural base. And they screwed it up by systems that are similar to what we have today. So the contemporary is not the inevitable."

Farmers will become true believers in "sustainable" agriculture, Wes Jackson said, once crop yields approach those of single-crop, monoculture farming.

"They won't be skeptical if they can make a profit," he said. "If they can cut their input costs. Farmers aren't stupid. They just want to make a profit. So I'm not worried. If the compelling alternative is there, they'll go for it."

Wes Jackson said he'd love to ease off a bit - do some more writing. But, as he puts it, "what I'm doin' is awfully interesting work." How about travel, a little fun?

"I don't really go on vacations. I travel a lot. For instance, I was just off in Seattle, and I had the best bowl of clam chowder I've ever had. I'm goin' to go back to the place if I ever go back to Seattle. But my place - this place right here - to me is where the action is," Mr. Jackson said.

Besides, said Wes Jackson, travel would mean joining the herd who are gobbling up the earth's nonrenewable energy. When he must hop a plane or put gas in the truck and drive off to a conference, he said, he tells himself he's using "transition fuel to a sunshine future."

But don't call Wes Jackson a futurist. "Too heroic," he said. "We're just trying to make sense of the world."