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Future farming: The call for a 50-year perspective on agriculture

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As everyone scrambles for a solution to the crises in the nation’s economy, Wes Jackson suggests we look to nature’s economy for some of the answers. With everyone focused on a stimulus package in the short term, he counsels that we pay more attention to the soil over the long haul.

“We live off of what comes out of the soil, not what’s in the bank,” said Jackson, president of The Land Institute. “If we squander the ecological capital of the soil, the capital on paper won’t much matter.”

Jackson doesn’t minimize the threat of the current financial problems but argues that the new administration should consider a “50-year farm bill,” which he and the writer/farmer Wendell Berry proposed in a New York Times op/ed earlier this month. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/05/opinion/05berry.html

Central to such a bill would be soil. A plan for sustainable agriculture capable of producing healthful food has to come to solve the twin problems of soil erosion and contamination, said Jackson, who co-founded the research center in 1976 after leaving his job as an environmental studies professor at California State University-Sacramento.

Jackson believes that a key part of the solution is in approaches to growing food that mimic nature instead of trying to subdue it. While Jackson and his fellow researchers at The Land Institute continue their work on Natural Systems Agriculture, he also ponders how to turn the possibilities into policy. He spoke with me from his office in Salina, Kansas.

Robert Jensen: This is a short-term culture, and federal policies typically are aimed at short-term results. Why call for a farm bill that looks so far ahead, especially in tough economic times?

Wes Jackson: For the past 50 or 60 years, we have followed industrialized agricultural policies that have increased the rate of destruction of productive farmland. For those 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe the absurd notion that as long as we have money we will have food. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy.

We need to reverse that destructive process, which means recognizing the need for fundamental changes in the way agriculture is practiced. That requires thinking beyond the next quarterly earnings report of the agribusiness corporations and beyond this fiscal year of the feds. We need farm bills -- laid out in five-year segments, with a view to the next 50 years -- that can be mileposts for moving agriculture from an extractive to a renewable economy.

RJ: What are some of the key aspects of a long-term solution?

WJ: Support for soil conversation and protecting water resources have to be central. There needs to be funding for research on a different model for agriculture. And we have to avoid wasting any more resources on biofuels made from annual crops, especially corn, which is certain to exacerbate soil erosion, chemical contamination, and a larger dead zone in the gulf.

RJ: But it is true that most people, including those in the new administration, are focused on short-term problems in the financial and industrial economy. Is there any chance people -- especially people in an overwhelmingly urban nation -- will pay attention right now?

WJ: Remember, if our agriculture is not sustainable then our food supply is not sustainable, and food is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs. Either we pay attention or we pay a huge price, not so far down the road. When we face the fact that civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland, it’s clear that we don’t really have a choice. Beyond that, changing the way agriculture is practiced would incorporate partial solutions to major problems that people do care about: climate change, over-consumption of energy, water problems. Yes, a 50-year bill is sensible right now.

RJ: What would such a 50-year plan look like? What are the key features?

WJ: We start by acknowledging the necessity of moving from an extractive, unsustainable economy to one that is renewable and sustainable, and the first place to look is to the production of the most basic commodity -- food. Once we face that necessity, we move to examining the possibilities for achieving this, recognizing that we have to act now while we still have slack, some room to move. Here’s a sobering thought: If we don’t achieve this sustainability first in agriculture, it’s highly unlikely we will in any other sector of the economy and society. That’s what makes this so imperative.

RJ: OK, start with the necessity. How is agriculture, as it is practiced today, an extractive enterprise that is unsustainable?

WJ: All organisms are carbon-based and in a constant search for energy-rich carbon. About 10,000 years ago humans moved from gathering/hunting to agriculture, tapping into the first major pool of energy-rich carbon -- the soil. It was agriculture that allowed us effectively to mine, as well as waste, the soil’s carbon and other soil-bound nutrients. Humans went on to exploit the carbon of the forests, coal, oil, and natural gas. But through all that, we’ve continued to practice agriculture that led to soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels. That’s the basic problem of agriculture.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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