Dr. Wes Jackson Interview: The Role Of Sustainable Agriculture In The Community

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I am concerned, with a lot of my friends, about the slippery slope of biotech.

News brief features an interview with Dr. Wes Jackson on the role of sustainable agriculture in the community.

MacArthur Fellow Dr. Wes Jackson lent some valuable time to the MOTHER staff to talk about getting back to the land and the role of sustainable agriculture in the community. Having spent the past 25 years in Kansas directing research at the Land Institute, Dr. Jackson has become a leading expert not only on sustainable agriculture, but on the culture of sustainable agriculture in what he calls a “coherent community.”

Sam Martin for MOTHER: In your last collection of essays Becoming Native to This Place you write that our notion of a “coherent community” has dwindled in the past hundred years. Do you think it’s possible to retrieve the notion of community in rural America for the next hundred years?

Not only do I think it’s possible, I think it’s essential.

What role will agriculture play in this new community?

Well, humans have to eat, so anybody that eats better be interested in agriculture and they better be interested in the cultural arrangements that ensure that the product of agrarian life flows toward those who are not on the land, as well as those who are on the land. And they have to flow in helpful ways. You don’t want to erode the ecological capital that stands behind food production.

Have you discovered any new crops at the Land Institute that help your sustain soil nutrients and increase nutritional value?

What we’ve done is work with wild species mostly for the purpose of answering the basic biological question, but now that we’ve nailed down [the fact] that perennialism and increased yields can go together . . . the next thing is to perennialize the major crops: the corn, the wheat, the sorghum, the soy beans, sunflowers and so on.

Will genetically engineered seeds make these things easier? Considering the strong reaction against genetically modified crops in places like Europe, it seems this type of advanced technology might be doing more harm than good.

Let me put it this way: I am concerned, with a lot of my friends, about the slippery slope of biotech. First of all, all slopes are slippery. Some are steeper and slicker than others. Some have sand glued to them and sideboards you can hang onto. I think the danger is minimal when you’re talking about the movement of genes within plant families (like in the grass family or the legume family) in such a way that will speed up breeding. I do think it’s improper to move genes over long evolutionary distances, from bacteria and viruses. I mean, we can probably get away with it for a while. And that’s the problem. You get away with it for a while and it works for a while. So rather than take an absolutely fundamentalist stance on it, I leave it open and am of course concerned about the slippery slope.

You said in a MOTHER interview in 1995 that we are losing “our cultural seed stock.” Have you noticed more young people finding interest in living closer to the environment since then?

There are people that are always interested but what you find is that there are even fewer people living off the land than in ’95. So somehow or another we still seem to not want to do it, although the encouraging thing that I do see are these CSAs that are popping up, community supported agriculture. They seem to be thriving. I think they’re on the increase and the membership is going up within them. But that’s pretty small compared to the problem over all. Nevertheless, it’s a hopeful sign.

Even though the U.S. birthrate seems to be under control; should we be concerned about the rapid increase in world population?

Well, yeah, but I don’t know how to act on it. What am I supposed to do now that I know we have over six billion people and that when I was born we had two and a half billion? I mean, what are we going to do? We could just jump up and say, “Whew, my word, look how terrible that is,” but the problem is that the action isn’t there.

What are some of the things we can do on a daily basis to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem?

I think one of the most important things is, wherever you are, dig in and claim your place and your communities with the affection that attends digging in – by not being so mobile. Then there’s the opportunity for affection to work on people and then they can become defenders of their place. I was reading about Yellow Springs, Ohio, and there the town was worried about the agricultural land outside the city being available for development and they essentially bought the land. Now that comes from a coherent community.

People need to be proud of where they are. And they need to make the best of where they are. Instead of shopping malls and Little League being what you live for until you move to the next place, live for your people, your land and your community as one thing. When people, land and community are regarded as one, then all members prosper. When regarded as competing agents, all suffer. That’s what I mean by coherence.