MOTHER Talks with Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Kansas

Dr. Wes Jackson from the Land Institute in Kansas talks about the importance of polyculture, back-to-the-land and the future of plant genetics.

| April/May 1995

Should anyone care to sow the seeds of agricultural revolution in this country, he or she would probably get them from Wes Jackson. For the past 16 years, the freethinking geneticist and his colleagues at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, have searched for plants that will see us through the next century. These plants, Jackson believes, will produce bountiful crops year after year without pesticides or fertilizers. More important, however, they won't need annual tillage, a practice used since men quit chasing mammoths.

Jackson's influence goes beyond mere seeds. In three books and numerous essays, this descendant of four generations of Kansas farmers has excoriated modern agriculture for ravaging land and people. The 58-year-old scientist has been dubbed a "maverick geneticist," a "prairie prophet," even "the father of sustainable agriculture." He dismisses labels with the wave of a callused hand. "I've told people I'm not a prophet; I'm head of a nonprofit organization," he chuckles.

Yet it is hard for Jackson not to sound Isaiah-like when the damage wrought by agriculture has reached biblical proportions. The topsoil that makes U.S. farmers the greatest producers in the world currently erodes at 20 times its rate of replenishment. Iowa, the backbone of the Corn Belt, has shed half its topsoil in the last 150 years, while the nation on average has lost a third. A recent geological study suggests that the world's farmers displace the same amount of soil each year as the glaciers of the last ice age.

The natural fertility and pest resistance inherent in healthy soils have largely been replaced by fertilizers and pesticides made from fossil fuels. Farmers apply some 20 million tons of fertilizer and more than one billion pounds of pesticide each year, traces of which have been detected in the waters of at least 40 states. Concern over the long-term effects of these substances recently prompted the National Cancer Institute to launch a 10-year, $15 million study of 100,000 farmers, chemical applicators, and their families.

Most researchers look toward technology to solve these problems. Jackson looks to nature, specifically the hardy prairie perennials that he hopes one day will replace frail corn and wheat. In less than two decades of selections and crosses, Land Institute researchers have achieved yields of Illinois bundleflower and wild senna comparable to wheat yields in the region. They have demonstrated greater yields in polycultures (mixtures of species) than in monocultures, as well as natural reduction of certain pests and diseases.

These findings prove that a new agriculture is possible, Jackson says—one without soil erosion, without chemical contamination, and with little fossil fuel input. In place of an eroding Breadbasket, Jackson envisions a domestic prairie that nurtures land, people, and community.

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