A Conversation With Wes Jackson, President of the Land Institute

WesJackson_sized.jpg Even when he's lecturing you over the phone about the effect of the hydrological cycle on soybean yields in Brazil's Amazon Basin, Wes Jackson sounds like a cowboy storyteller with a slight drawl. His campfire tales, however, are historically minded and deeply academic: he can take you from Brazil back to his native Kansas with the deft phrase, "Let's go back to the Bronze Age for a minute."

Jackson talks a lot about "the 10,000-year-old problem," the problem of how we grow our food. The solution may exist at the Land Institute, where Jackson leads research into new agricultural practices that combine earth-conscious farming practices with whiz-bang new plant breeds and genetic technologies. Here, he talks about perennials, the end of fossil fuels, and the very worst kind of fundamentalism.

What do you answer when people ask you, "What do you do?"

As president of the Land Institute, I pay some attention to the research agenda, write, give talks, and raise funds. The most satisfying part is the discussion with scientists as well as colleagues throughout the sustainable agriculture network.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on sustainable agriculture?

We can now realistically imagine at a time in the foreseeable future the marriage of ecology/evolutionary biology with agriculture in an expanding and robust sort of way. We can imagine this because with perennials the land need not be disturbed every year, and the processes of the wild, dependent on continuity, can be brought to the farm. This will be a first in 10,000 years of grain production.

What's something that people don't understand about your area of expertise?

These perennial grains are not mere specialty crops, nor are they to be grown in monocultures. We hope to advance and enlarge upon the idea that the ecosystem is the necessary conceptual tool for truly sustainable grain agriculture. We believe we can have an agriculture where management by human intervention is greatly reduced. This is especially important for grain agriculture, since annual grains are responsible for 70 percent of our calories and are grown on about the same percentage of our acreage planet-wide.

What emerging trend do you think will shake up how food is raised?

Almost any newly trained geneticist is a molecular geneticist. These molecular techniques are certain to be useful to the breeder, and molecular markers are being used now to speed up breeding. But much of what is being proposed by molecular biologists is greatly overstated, since plants still have to live outside, so ordinary breeding will continue to be necessary, and therefore, remain something of an art. Looking at molecules is to look downward in the hierarchy of structure. Often overlooked, but of equal importance, is the necessity to look upward in the hierarchy of the sciences to the ecosystem level, which makes ecology/evolutionary biology of greater importance to agriculture.

What's a trend in agriculture that you wish would just go away?

Technological fundamentalism, fueled by the industrial mind, is now worse than any religious brand of fundamentalism. The industrial mind has increasingly dominated during the last 250 years and is largely a product of the fossil fuel interlude. Eventually it will give way to an ecological worldview, the sooner the better.

What's an idea that you became fascinated by but ended up taking you off track?

I have stayed pretty focused on our mission to solve the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture since 1977.

What three people would you put in your field's Hall of Fame?

Wendell Berry—he is the best thinker of our time. Read his book The Unsettling of America. It was meant to be corrective, but unfortunately it turned out to be prophetic, and he understood that our problem is at once ecological and cultural. His essays, novels, and poetry also inform in a practical way.

Aldo Leopold saw the contrast between the wild natural ecosystems and agriculture. He noted that the latter undercut the ecological capital standing behind the human food supply. His "Land Ethic" essay says it all.

Liberty Hyde Bailey kept looking back to nature as the standard or measure against which we should judge our agricultural practices. The Outlook to Nature appeared in 1905 and The Holy Earth in 1915. And I must add a fourth—Sir Albert Howard, for his Agricultural Testament in 1940 and his description of the Law of Return.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

In college I wanted to teach high school biology and be a football and track coach. I got over both with no side effects, and it didn't take long.

What website or app most helps you daily to do your job?

I have never looked at a website in my life.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Home on the Range."

Image: Courtesy of the Land Institute

Read more installments of "Nine and a Half Questions."

Presented by

Emily Q. Hazzard is an associate editor at WaPo Labs. She was previously an associate producer for Al Jazeera's The Stream and an editorial project associate at The Atlantic.

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