“Land use is number 2 as a source of greenhouse gases. If you’re really interested in doing something about climate, let’s go to land use.
WES JACKSON, CO-FOUNDER, THE LAND INSTITUTE: If we don’t get sustainability in agriculture first, it’s not going to happen.”
I’m Mark Bittman for The New York Times. If you care about sustainable agriculture, healthy eating, and –you know – the planet, you probably should know about Wes Jackson.
WES JACKSON, CO-FOUNDER, THE LAND INSTITUTE: “Such as those working on ecological agriculture…”
Wes is a legend: a farmer, scholar, thought leader…and activist in sustainable agriculture for four decades. I had the chance to speak with Wes on a recent trip to the annual Prairie festival in Salina Kansas, which is pretty much the green heartland of America.
Wes established and still runs the Land Institute where ecologists and agro-researchers work on changing the way we grow grains.
MARK BITTMAN: “We just has a fantastic weekend with the…probably the best weather of the year and you had a wonderful turnout of what 800 people …”
WES JACKSON: “Yeah, something like that.”
MARK BITTMAN: “…Prairie Festival. What’s the…what’s the governing theory here? Why were people coming?”
WES JACKSON: “Well, it’s a celebration of the prairie ecosystem and opportunity to think through with some scholars from here and there that are interested in the general idea of a sustainable ‘sunshine’ future…uh, featuring agriculture.
MARK BITTMAN: “We ate some things – we drank some things that were actually made from sustainable perennial crops. That’s kind of the core idea of what you’ve been doing, isn’t it?”
WES JACKSON: “What we’re doing is perennializing major crops and domesticating some wild, promising species. And, you know, and looking around essentially all of nature’s ecosystems are perennial poly-cultures.”
MARK BITTMAN: “And almost all of our food comes from annual mono-cultures. Which is what agriculture, with the exception of tree crops, it’s what agriculture has always meant.”
WES JACKSON: “Since ten thousand years ago…” MARK BITTMAN: “You plant every spring.” WES JACKSON: “Yeah” MARK BITTMAN: “Uh, and that’s a biblical tradition and we have a very warm, fuzzy feeling about it and so-on but by definition it degrades the soil. WES JACKSON: “Yeah”
The alternative is perennial poly-cultures. Farmers would not have to tear up their land every year and multiple crops grown simultaneously keep nutrients in the soil, erosion minimized, and pests and diseases at bay. Not only that, the whole system would be far less dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And the crop that has shown potential to do all that is a relative of wheat called Kernza.“Kernza is wheat-grass…
TIM CREWS, DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH, THE LAND INSTITUDE: “Kernza is intermediate wheat-grass but selected for higher yield and grain attributes. People are ready to, you know, get go on with Kernza. It has gluten, but not the gluten compliment that will make bread rise. It’s very complimentary, though, with annual wheat flour.”
But is production of Kernza and other perennial crops scalable? The idea here, quite literally, is to change the face of agriculture –at least of grain agriculture – and that’s huge.
WES JACKSON: “You know, I don’t think we have to slay Goliath. I think we have to – and the Goliath is the Industrial Agriculture Goliath – uh, all we have to do is quite using so much fertilizer. Farmers just want to make a profit, and if they see they can lower their input costs, they’ll do it.