The Problem of Agriculture

Last week, before his talk at the Illahee Lectures, we asked Wes Jackson, “So, what’s the problem with agriculture?”

He replied, “You mean the problem of agriculture.”

In an hour and a half talk, Jackson took Illahee attendees through a wide-ranging tour of environmental history, starting 3.45 billion years ago, with extended visits to the cradle of agriculture in the Zagreb mountains of Iran 10,000 years ago, to the creation myths of Genesis and Gilgamesh, to enlightenment dualism, to the invention of the Haber-Bosch process in 1911, through the green revolution of the mid 20th century.

You could tell we were in for a different kind of talk when Jackson opened with the line, “I feel a digression coming on.”

Dozens of digressions later, we were left with this: the problem of agriculture is agriculture. Especially annual crops.

Annual crop agriculture is an anomaly in a perennial world.  Most ecosystems are based on perennial species, in which a vegetative part of the individual lives from year to year. But Holocene hunter-gatherers chose to expand their diet by domesticating annual grains.  Why? Because they could.  From humble beginnings, this one act changed the planet.  It allowed, in the geological eye-blink of 10,000 years, one species to increase its population exponentially and appropriate the majority of the earth’s natural resources.

All organisms, humans included, seek high quality carbon. We are one of the few that farm carbon (yes, there are others: for example, ants). And we are the only one that has moved from low to high quality carbon in the space of a few hundred generations –  from soil carbon, to wood, to coal, to oil and natural gas. As Stuart Brand has said, “We are the planet’s farmers, we better get good at it.” Right now we’re not.

So, agriculture is the problem, as it has allowed one species – and its effects on the ecosphere – to grow exponentially. There’s only one ending to exponential population growth that we know of, and it isn’t pretty. At least for the individuals at the second inflection point in the S curve. There not much we can do about the inevitability of peak population, coming sometime in the mid 21st century.  But there is something we can do about managing it.

The other part of the problem is that agriculture itself is fundamentally unsustainable. Annual crops degrade soils and ecosystems. Tilling erodes soil and flushes it, along with fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides into a thousand “dead zones” at the mouths of rivers world-wide. This can’t go on much longer. We’ve reached peak food with this system (global grain production has leveled off in the past few years), and if we keep degrading our soils and ecosystems like this, we’ll be sliding down the other side of the peak in the near future.

Our solutions so far? Local and organic  and “sustainable agriculture.” Those are fine as far as they go, and will certainly be part of the solution, but if that’s all we do, we’re toast. The problem is that the vast majority of the food we eat – our grains – come from annual plants. We need to move to no-till perennials. That is, we need agriculture to more closely mimic natural systems. And that’s what Wes Jackson is doing.

The Land Institute is thirty years into a fifty to one hundred-year program of painstakingly perennializing our most important annual grains, the crops that provide most of our food. It’s a long tedious process. There aren’t a lot of feel-good breakthroughs.  No new apps coming out every few months. It’s old-fashioned hard labor in an era of instant gratification.  But if it works, it will be regarded as the most important paradigm shift since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Not a bad legacy.

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