Thursday, November 21, 2013

Wes Jackson on why perennials and why not annuals

Jim Wood wrote last week in defense of traditional agriculture.  He was reacting to something he heard Wes Jackson, director of The Land Institute, say in an interview with Mark Bittman on the New York Times site, and that was that "agriculture is the worst mistake in the history of the human race."  Jared Diamond may be responsible for this idea gaining traction as it was the title of an article he wrote for Discover Magazine in 1987.

Fertilizer being applied to a corn field; Wikimedia Commons
Jim noticed that the idea was perpetuated on the Land Institute's website, and it got his hackles up because, as an anthropologist, he believes that most traditional agriculture isn't all bad.  Of course, yesterday's post by archeology graduate student Reed Goodman points out that depending on what is 'traditional' agriculture has had serious consequences before today's industrialized, fossil-fuel-based version that Wes is referring to.

The Land Institute is a forward-thinking, some might say radical hot-shot on the sustainable ag horizon.  They have been working for 37 years now to perennialize grain, for many important ecological and economic reasons. We blogged about The Land recently, but of course Wes Jackson describes their work much better, and more fully than we can. He is passionate because he wants to motivate people to undertake fundamental change, and that is difficult to achieve.

Indeed, Wes emailed us a reply to Jim's blog post, explaining what he thinks is wrong with modern agriculture, and why perennializing grains will eliminate some of the worst ecological effects of today's reliance on annual crops, monocrops at that.  He has kindly agreed that we post his comments here.

Wes Jackson
First off, I am not an anthropologist. I have spent little time in undeveloped countries. I have visited a few farms in Mexico, rural Chile and Argentina and also Tunisia. I am not doubting the observations of Professor Wood with his vast “on the ground” experience with subsistence farmers. There is little to disagree with on any of the “bullet points” and wondering if perhaps he is not aware that we are mostly plant breeders (perennializing the major crops and domesticating some promising wild species) and ecologists at work to put them in mixes that mimic something close to the vegetative structure of a prairie.

I am attaching a.) my preface and prologue of New Roots for Agriculture, 1980 and b.) Chapter 6 of my 2012 book Consulting the Genius of the Place. [Please email me, avbuchanan at gmail, if you would like copies of either of these.]

1.     The Land Institute is not suggesting that we go back to gathering and hunting. Too much water has gone through the turbines for that to happen.

2.     We do not criticize farmers of any variety. We are all locked into a system in which there is little opportunity for life outside it.

3.     We are saying that annual grain monocultures represent a kind of “hardware” around which we have historically built several versions of software. Some have been sustainable and have stood the test of time, but most acreage with annual hardware erodes.

4.     Most of nature’s land based ecosystems tend to feature perennials grown in mixtures. There soil capital accumulates. Grain agriculture features annuals which tend to be grown in monocultures.

5.     Here and there and now and then (sometimes for long periods) are examples where the ecological capital has been sustained, for whatever reason. It depends.

6.     We can now come up with herbaceous perennial seed producing polycultures, something humanity could not do until the present. Here is the reason. Essentially all annuals tend to self, i.e. accept their own pollen and therefore the genetic load does not build up. Also, a desirable mutation, such as shatter resistance, can be quickly fixed in the population. This makes the first step to domestication easy. Perennials are likely to have a huge genetic load. Early agriculturists would have been quickly discouraged at getting high yield as they did with the annuals through crossing. There would have been lots of aborted embryos. Also they would have had to wait a long time for a desirable trait, such as shatter resistance, to become fixed. In our time, given our computational power and knowledge not available then, we can overcome the problem of our agricultural ancestors.

7.     I am not an anthropologist and have spent little time in undeveloped countries. I have visited farms in Mexico, rural Chile, Argentina and Tunisia. I am not doubting the observations of Professor Wood with his vast experience “on the ground” visiting subsistence farmers and liking them. Seems I have been influenced by others who have studied the history of earth abuse through agriculture. To name a few: Dr. Walter C. Lowdermilk, Plato and Aristotle, Curtis N. Runnels, Paul B. Seers and many others.

8.     The United Nations says we are losing some 30 million agriculture acres per year due to agricultural land degradation. Also, one study shows that for 1700-2000 the globe lost slightly less than 1 billion acres of ag land due to degradation of some form.

Here are a few points we believe we can defend as to why we should be optimistic about the potential of perennial grain mixtures.

1.     Production: “In most parts of the world, human activities, and agriculture in particular, have resulted in decreases in net primary productivity from the levels that likely existed prior to human management. (Chris Field, 2001, Science)

2.     More Efficient:  Perennials have greater access to resources over a longer growing season.

3.     Time-tested: Diverse, perennial plant communities have been successful micro-managers of landscapes for millions of years.

4.     Reallocation Potential: Perennials have “excess capacity” that can be reallocated to grain production.

5.     Sustained yield: Perennial grains have the advantage over annuals in terms of sustained yield on marginal landscapes.

6.     The revolutionary transformation of wild species into crops has been done before (with annuals).

7.     The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) report said: Production (of food) at the expense of conservation (of the wild biodiversity) OR conservation at the expense of production. The either-or assumption can be replaced with “conservation as a consequence of production” with perennial polycultures.

In addition to the greenhouse problem being addressed with perennial grains, there are two other realities which Natural Systems Agriculture addresses:

1.     Agriculture is the “largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity.” (MEA)

2.     Humans are poor micro-managers of complex, dynamic processes taking place across large landscapes. Diverse perennial systems are elegant micro-managers of nutrients and water.

And more succinctly: 
I do not criticize grain farmers who have been forced to come up with software to do the best with the “hardware” with which they have been stuck for 10 millennia. Several small scale enterprises have come up with software (agronomic methods) to make do, depending on where they are and the history of their culture. With the new hardware (perennials on the horizon), now ecology can enter the picture in a robust way for the first time. What has to run ahead of everything else on the global scale is an historical reality. On a large scale annual agriculture destroys the ecological capital behind our food supply. It has done so long before the industrial era because annual systems are poor micromanagers of nutrients and water.
 Summing up?
A lively discussion about how things were, are, and ought to be is a salubrious thing for the social media.  In this case, the differences of views expressed reflect different perspectives and time scales and the like, not different assessments of the issues that Wes has devoted so much attention and creative work to.  And Jim Wood, like many anthropologists, is interested in other aspects of agriculture.

The more these discussions can be aired, and the more widely, the more likely it could be that these serious issues are addressed.


Ken Weiss said...

We had intended to add a mention of the book Dirt: the Erosion of Civilization, written by David Montgomery. We can't attest from personal knowledge to its accuracy, but it certainly seems compelling. It's message, if we remember clearly from when we read it, is that many times in many places around the world, nation states have exhausted their soil and gotten themselves into serious trouble. So the problem may not be agriculture per se, nor fossil-fuel-based industrial ag, but perhaps that ag can under some circumstances be a part of population density growth and that this can have damaging consequences.

Each place and era will have its own circumstances, and clearly (as Jim Wood pointed out clearly) eco-ag disaster may not be inevitable. But just as clearly, the problems Wes points out seem real, and whatever our ancestors' issues, the current problems are our issues and we should be dealing with them.

Jim Wood said...

I have no disagreement on any matter of substance with either Wes Jackson or the Land Institute. I have no idea if perennialization will work (I'm not a plant geneticist or breeder), but it seems like a good approach to mitigating the problems of modern agriculture. And, yes, I do believe there are serious problems with large-scale agribusiness and modern methods of tillage.

To be honest, I was just using the Land Institute's passing comment on its website as a straw man, not as a reason to criticize the Institute itself. I just get weary of hearing constantly that all forms of farming are destructive when we know it's not true. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report may very well be right about the current world situation. In fact, I believe that, given the size and consumption patterns of the current human population, many agricultural practices are likely to have been pushed beyond their sustainable levels. But that is a demographic, social, economic, and political problem, not purely an agricultural one. Shifting cultivation, often considered the least intensive form of farming, can be highly destructive of forest ecosystems when practiced by populations that have grown too large but perfectly sustainable (and protective of biodiversity) otherwise. Farming per se is not the problem; population growth and modern-day squandering of resources are.

Again, I meant no disrespect to the Land Institute and its mission, and I'm sorry if anyone got the impression that I did.

Ken Weiss said...

This kind of exchange and examination of things can be very salubrious, helping focus attention on where the problems lie and to have them in some sort of comparative perspective. It's a very healthy way to do things and, hopefully, engage others.

Manoj Samanta said...

Good post from Wes Jackson. It appears to me that both Ken Weiss and him are correct in the context of their commentaries.

Only in faux news style debate, one person has to be 'wrong' for other person to be 'right'. Real life is more multi-faceted, and real debates are learning opportunities for the audience, not a forum to pick Democrat side vs Republican side.

Jim Wood said...

It's largely a matter of scale. To quote Wendell Berry, who is unashamedly pro-smallscale-farming but unrelently anti-largescale farming,

'The only true and effective "operator's manual for spaceship earth" is not a book any human will ever write; it is hundreds of thousands of local cultures.' -- Wendell Berry, What Are People For?

Alas, we are currently losing, at an alarming rate, the traditional farming knowledge and practices that have sustained all those local cultures for many generations. Perhaps needless to say, I don't think we'll reverse this problem by condemning all manifestations of farming across the board.

Jim Wood said...

I agree completely. As I said, I don't actually have any real disagreement with Wes Jackson.