“The plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword,” [Jackson] says. “But soil is more important than oil, and just as nonrenewable.” Soil loss is one of the biggest hidden costs of industrial agriculture — and it’s created at literally a glacial pace, maybe a quarter-inch per century. The increasingly popular no-till style of agriculture reduces soil loss but increases the need for herbicides. It’s a short-term solution, requiring that we poison the soil to save it.Now This Is Natural Food (New York Times)
Annual monoculture like that practiced in the Midwestern Corn Belt is one culprit. It produces the vast majority of our food, and much of that food — perhaps 70 percent of our calories — is from grasses, which produce edible seeds, or cereals. For 10,000 years we’ve plowed the soil, planted in spring and harvested in fall, one crop at a time.
In an essay he published 26 years ago, called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond theorized that this was essentially our downfall: by losing our hunter-gatherer roots and becoming dependent on agriculture, we made it possible for the human population to expand but paid the price in the often malnourishing, environmentally damaging system we have today.
That’s fascinating, and irreversible; barring a catastrophe that drastically reduces the human population, we’ll rely on agriculture for the foreseeable future. But if we look to the kind of systems Jackson talks about, we can markedly reduce the damage. “We don’t have to slay Goliath with a pebble,” he says of industrial agriculture. “We just have to quit using so much fertilizer and so many pesticides to shrink him to manageable proportions.”
Perennial polysystems are one way forward, because they allow us to produce grains, legumes, oils and other foods with a host of benefits. Gesturing across the road from where we sat, Jackson said to me: “That prairie — a prime example of a self-sustaining system — doesn’t have soil erosion, it’s not fossil-fuel dependent, you have species and chemical diversity. If you look around you’ll see that essentially all of nature’s ecosystems are perennial polycultures; that’s nature’s instruction book.” In perennial polycultures, the plants may fertilize one another, physically support one another, ward off pests and diseases together, resist drought and flood, and survive even when one member suffers.
In addition to domesticating wild food-producing species, the Land Institute staff has taken on a far more challenging task: converting annuals into perennials. Perenniality is a complex trait, controlled by multiple genes. Perennials put more energy into their roots and less into flowers and seeds and greens, they send reserve energy into storage to wake up in the spring and they seldom die. The work might go faster if Jackson had adequate funding, which isn’t much; he’d consider himself fully funded for the next 30 years with about one-third of the 2011 Federal subsidy for producing ethanol.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Agriculture and its discontents
Good on Mark Bittman for giving attention to the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, and Wes Jackson. Too bad this isn't considered part of the "solution" enough to have Silicon Valley sugar daddies pouring in millions to develop it like genetically modified seeds:
Posted by escapefromwisconsin at 8:38 AM