Q&A: Wes Jackson

Plant geneticist and Land Institute president Wes Jackson asks, Can wheat and corn be turned into perennials?

| Wed Oct. 29, 2008 3:00 AM EDT

Mother Jones: You've spent decades researching plant genetics. Can you explain for people who may not be familiar with the topic why we should transition our agriculture away from annual crops toward perennial crops?

Wes Jackson: If you look at nature's ecosystems, almost anywhere across the planet, nature features perennials in mixtures. This is pretty easily understood if one reflects on the fact that of the almost 30 elements that you see on the periodic chart that go into organisms—they're in the upper third of the chart that you see in the classroom—only four of those are in the atmospheric commons: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen. The rest of them are at the earth's surface and below. And they all happen to be hydrophilic, i.e. at home in water. So therefore, one can imagine nature's ecosystems evolving an elegant diversity of root architectures to manage, in millimeters and minutes, very efficiently, the stuff that life forms are made of. In other words, it doesn't matter if you're a redwood or a human or a Holstein or a corn plant: It's what we're all made of, these elements. We land animals, we deep-air animals, if you wish, we have been dependent primarily on nature's efficient perennial land plants. Agriculture reversed that, though, starting 10 to 12 thousand years ago, by featuring annuals instead of perennials and monocultures instead of polycultures. So that's where we took the wrong turn. Yes, it allowed us to exploit the soil resource, but it also then meant that we have to tear the ground up every year, leaving it subject to the forces of wind and rain. We do this for all of our high-yielding crops, those that really sustain us. The No. 1 crop of the world is rice. No. 2 is wheat. No. 3 is corn, and then potato, but then soybeans. And you take those four crops, corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, that's close to two-thirds of the agricultural land and calories of humanity. We're primarily grass-feed eaters, and secondarily legume-seed eaters. If we're to solve the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture, we're going to have to perennialize the major crops and put them in mixtures so that we can bring the processes of the wild to the farm.

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MJ: What lessons you are learning at the Land Institute?

WJ: We're mostly geneticist plant breeders here, so our work is mostly plant breeding but also some ecology, soil science, and so on. We're perennializing wheat, sorghum, sunflowers; we're perennializing the major crops. It's very long term, although we have mileposts that we're meeting. We're increasingly convinced that these crops are going to be more resilient to climate change.

MJ: Why is that?

WJ: Well, just to give you a little example, going back into the '30s: There was a graduate student at the University of Nebraska that compared a never-plowed native prairie, featuring perennials of course, to an adjacent wheat field. It happened to be the driest year on record. Of course all the wheat plants died, but the prairie survived, because these roots explore larger areas below ground. They've got a better water-management system than the annual monocultures.

MJ: How long do you project it will take before we can start farming and harvesting perennials at scale?

WJ: Maybe one species, maybe two, in the next decade. There could be something ramped up, so to speak. But as far as something farmer ready as a polyculture, a mixture of species, we're looking at 25, 30 years. With corn, 50 or longer.

MJ: Is that fast enough to avoid reaching the point of no return on our ecological decline?

WJ: I don't know. Do we have enough time to get down to 20 percent of the consumption of fossil carbon? Do we have enough time to cut the population in half? Essentially, every major problem has only long-term solutions.

MJ: What are some things that government can do to stimulate the transition to perennials?

WJ: They need to work hard to bring a different concept to agriculture—the marriage of ecology and agriculture. Instead of trying to understand agriculture in its own terms, acknowledge that agriculture ultimately comes out of nature. Right now agriculture is the No. 1 threat to biodiversity on the planet. We the people, so to speak, need to realize that if we can keep ourselves fed, we might get through this long dark tunnel of power down, and mitigate the consequences of CO2. But if we can't stay fed…30, 40 years ago there was talk about climate change, and global warming, and so on. We essentially lost three decades. Well, now here we are. I think we stand a pretty good chance of getting renewable technologies through wind and solar, but there's not going to be a technological solution to soil. So here we are, fat with plenty of food just like we were with plenty of oil and natural gas 30, 40 years ago, and we let it slip by. I think it'll be a worse mistake this time.

MJ: Does anyone in politics understand this?

WJ: Politicians are simply reflections of the public. There's going to have to be a lot of constituency building for these ideas. And we get a different set of politicians in there. We were successful here in Kansas to be the first state to say no to a coal-fired plant on the grounds of climate change. Our governor changed her mind. Kathleen Sebelius turned from favoring those coal-fired plants. She's a woman who once she hears the facts she pays attention to those that publish in refereed journals and isn't susceptible to the blathering of Rush Limbaugh and bar talk.

MJ: Sebelius made a lot of news for doing that. A huge amount of political energy is required for the agricultural transition you're talking about. Is there anything that the ordinary American can do?

WJ: You sound like my kids. "So, Dr. Doom, what can we as ordinary citizens do about this?" Well, I would like to see more people go into genetics and plant breeding. Of course that'd take a very small number of people compared to our population. We really need to get people thinking—No. 1: Arrest this idea that the solutions to our problems are primarily technological. I mean, that comes out of technological fundamentalism. The solutions to our problems have to do with restraint and conservation, cutting back, making do, and so on. The belief that we are going to "efficiency" our way out of this is to ignore Jevons Paradox.

MJ: Can you explain?

WJ: William Stanley Jevons, in 1865, wrote the book called The Coal Question. After an extensive study—now this is a little over 100 years after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—Jevons concluded that as industrial England got more efficient, it used more resources, particularly coal and iron. It's called Jevons Paradox [video]. What it did, in fact, was free up capital. So when the Wal-Marts of the world say they're going to put in different lightbulbs and get their trucks to get by on half the fuel, what are they going to do with the savings? They're going to go open up another box store somewhere. It's just nuts. But I think we may be catching on to that. So, policy? We're going to have to put a cap on carbon. And people say, "Well, reward people with money for behaving themselves." It's hard to keep money out of carbon trouble.

MJ: Do you favor a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system?

WJ: Not a carbon tax. I certainly don't approve of that. With a carbon tax, if that tax isn't spent on renewables for the short run, then that money's available to go find trouble somewhere else.

MJ: What if the tax went into...

WJ: …Wind machines? That might be a different story.

MJ: Right. What's your take on green consumerism—whether or not buying new stuff is sort of inherently unsustainable?

WJ: I have an '83 Chevy pickup, four-wheel drive, rusty, falling apart. It gets terrible gas mileage, but I don't drive far, just mostly around the place here. I hardly ever go to the town with it. And someone might say, "Well, you ought to be getting one with 30 or 40 miles to the gallon or something." Then what about this one? You know, the energy cost for making it has already been paid. I would like to explore, instead of thinking about gas mileage, just, say, put a limit on everybody, no more than 5,000 miles a year. Go ahead and have your Hummer, but you're not going to drive more than 5,000 miles. So much of the energy cost has to do with the scaffolding or the infrastructure that is supporting extensive driving. Once you start looking at the scaffolding that stands behind this industry, and appreciate how much of that has been made possible by fossil carbon, and can only be kept propped up due to fossil carbon, it concentrates our mind wonderfully.

MJ: Even agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuel. How do perennials affect our dependence on the fossil fuels?

WJ: This of course is our goal: To have zero soil erosion, zero fossil fuel dependency, a greatly reduced chemical contamination of our land and water, and something of a restoration of an agrarian way of being. It's going to require intelligent people on the landscape that are hybrids between, say, ecologists and agriculturists. I imagine the future farmer will have a psychology more like that of a 19th-century British naturalist than a modern-day dirt farmer.

MJ: When will the ecological collapses occurring around the world actually start to affect us and change our psychology?

WJ: Of course the world population has tripled in my lifetime. I'm 72. As you probably know, anybody who died by 1930 never lived through a doubling of the human population. And anybody who's born in 2050 likely won't either. I think we have to acknowledge this 120-year window in which there's been a great increase in fossil fuel use. That's when the curve began to climb, and then steepen in the '50s, and then of course it's going to decline. It's got sort of a bell-shaped curve there.

Now let me back up a bit: Herman Daly, the economist, I was reading a paper he wrote, and I've talked with him about this a little bit. This won't be exactly the way he put it, but it's close. What do mice and elephants and humans and Holstein cows and deer and toasters and Deepfreezes and houses and garages and so on have in common? Well, one is they are all members of populations. In other words, there is a population of houses and a population of pop-up toasters and a population of Deepfreezes, and so on, just as there are populations of people and deer and whatever. Now they all occupy space, and they are all dissipative structures. In other words, they are all subject to the Second Law. Imagine people say, "Well, the human population will go down as people get more affluent." For populations, what that means is, as the population of toasters and Deepfreezes and houses or second homes or whatever go up, then the number of people will go down. But we are all dissipative structures. So someone will say, "Well, India will lower its population and have a rate like that of Sweden." But how many of Swedish equivalents, and Sweden happens to be a pretty good country too, what will be the throughput of the toasters and everything else through the Indian subcontinent, in order to have the population throughput of Scandinavia? It's a way of dealing with this affluence, population problem, by having the common denominator of populations.

MJ: Along those lines, if industrialized countries start using more and more sustainable technologies, they may be expensive. How do they pull India and China, these countries that are so dependent on big GDP growth, how do we get them to come along?

WJ: I'm wondering if those conversations aren't happening in China perhaps at a high level, certainly more at a higher level than are happening at a high level in this country. I mean, they have to be aware that they're involved in deficit spending of the earth's resource. They can't be that dumb.

MJ: You think it'll be a matter of necessity, maybe because it will start impacting them sooner?

WJ: Yeah. For one thing, why is it that they worked hard for the one-child family? They didn't do that just because there were too many people, because nobody had a place to lie down. They had to know that this is a strain.

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