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What it takes to grow food without fossil fuels

Wes Jackson, executive director of The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas, explains his vision for the future of agriculture at a lecture in Corvallis Thursday.

Wes Jackson has the next agricultural revolution all planned out. He’s even drawn up the budget and the 50-year Farm Bill needed to do it.

In his vision, future farms will mimic the way nature grows food and let the ecosystem – rather than fossil fuels – do most of the work. They will follow the economics of a prairie as opposed to industrial agriculture.

The visions starts with replacing the current system of annual plowing, fertilizing, and grain planting with a more permanent set of crops that will regenerate on their own, rebuild the soil and even sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

I first discovered Jackson in a book called “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” His Kansas-based nonprofit, The Land Institute, is building a harvestable, perennial prairie as a model of how to grow food without plowing, without adding nitrogen fertilizer to the soil, and without water-polluting erosion.

Jackson was in Corvallis on Thursday delivering a Food for Thought lecture at Oregon State University. I decided I couldn’t pass it up.

This banner shows the difference in root length between an annual wheat plant and a perennial that can live year-round, rebuild the soil and produce grain without plowing, fertilizer inputs or the erosion and runoff that come along with them.

Somewhere in the transition from our hunter-gatherer lifestyle and our agricultural societies, he explained in his lecture, human beings shifted their food source from diverse perennial plants that live year-round to annual monoculture crops that have to be replanted year after year.

Annual plowing leaves topsoil vulnerable to erosion and allows critical nitrogen and carbon nutrients to leak out.

The Land Institute has cross bred annual wheat with perennial plants to produce a crop that will regenerate and continually produce grain without plowing.

With some more research, Jackson said, the whole world could see a similar merging of ecology, evolutionary biology and agriculture that would allow farmers to grow wheat, rice, corn and sorghum in a new and sustainable way.

“We have a chance, for the first time in history, to have a conceptual revolution in agriculture,” he said.

Agriculture has seen dramatic gains in productivity over the past century, he said. But there’s a dirty secret no one wants to recognize, and that makes the system unsustainable.

“The scaffolding standing behind all these efficiencies is unacknowledged fossil fuel dependency,” said Jackson.

One example, of many he noted, is how much natural gas is required to turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer that will return lost nitrogen to the soil.

The average farmer has to borrow money to buy all the inputs needed to keep farming year after year. And yet, the soil will continue to lose nutrients if farming continues as it is today. “It’s a Sisyphean effort,” Jackson said.

Jackson said 99 percent of all the oil that has ever been burned has been burned over the course of his 75-year lifetime.

“The farm I was born on had horses,” he said. “I remember when we got the tractor.”

The Land Institute’s 160 acres utilizes solar photovoltaics, biodiesel and draft animals – in addition to the diverse plant mix that work together to reduce pests and disease, add nutrients to the soil and produce crops.

Perennial food farming, also known as permaculture, could not only reduce fossil fuel inputs in agriculture, but could actually sequester 20 years worth of carbon in the atmosphere by his calculations.

He estimates launching his envisioned farming revolution would cost $1.64 billion over the course of 30 years – actually just a fraction of the $6 billion the U.S. is spending on subsidies for corn-based ethanol this year.

His sketch of a 50-year Farm Bill (a stark contrast from the usual five-year bills) would entail ratcheting up subsidies for perennial crop plantings gradually over 50 years to shift the agricultural mix from what is now around 20 percent perennial plants to 80 percent.

So far, he said, no one else is farming the way The Land Institute does. Because their hybrid plants aren’t available in the marketplace. In fact, he said, the traditional agriculture industry pretty much ignores his ideas because he’s “too far out” to affect their quarterly earnings.


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