Halting obsession with carbon is key to sustaining agriculture



Contributing writer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Wes Jackson believes we can solve agriculture’s 10,000-year-old problem. Jackson spoke to hundreds of attendees Feb. 4 at the 20th annual Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture‘s Farming for the Future Conference. The conference was conducted Feb. 2-5 at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel in State College, Pa.


According to Jackson, president of The Land Institute, the problem is we are obsessed with carbon fuels. We are living in an “extractive” ecosystem, where as technologies become more efficient, what all mankind tends to do is use more and more natural resources with little or no restraint.

That way of life has to change, according to Jackson. As the world’s human population heads from 7 billion to 9 billion, we have a system “that doesn’t want to be healed,” he said. “For the first time in history, we have to practice restraint in our use of energy.”

Jackson, who spoke at the inaugural PASA Conference at Penn State University about two decades ago, provided a history of how mankind emerged from living with a very diverse, supportable and renewable ecosystem to one dependent on extraction and manipulation in our obsession with “carbon.”

In the meantime, for us to exploit the land to drive up our agricultural and industrial efficiencies, the “ecosystem had to be destroyed,” Jackson said. The ground was disturbed, native species were lost and monoculture crops were planted.

Mankind has had its “big brain” subduing the planet since civilization began 250,000 years ago, with our roots in modern agriculture making up only a small percentage of that time — 10,000 years ago at best.

Jackson, a Kansas prairie native, noted that since mankind first “captured” fire thousands of years ago, we’ve been obsessed with using carbon products — coal, oil, and natural gas — to expand and build and create more of what we do. In his own lifetime, Jackson said, “we have burned 99 percent of the oil ever burned” on the planet, he said.


But before we think of more exploitation of ag’s resources, Jackson noted, we have to work to get the ecosystem in balance. Jackson pointed out Jevons’ Paradox, named in honor of William Stanley Jevons from Jevons’ 1865 book, The Coal Question, that as technologies help us extract and refine coal or other resources, the more that resource gets used.

Jackson pointed out some of the comments made during a State of the Union Address by President Obama when the president noted that money can be spent to make all businesses more efficient.

All this will do, according to Jackson, is allow Walmart to increase its energy efficiency so the company can build more Walmarts, said Jackson. “The more efficient we get, the more we use.”

To solve these issues, Jackson noted, we have to ask the questions that don’t have answers, he said. We have to move from an extractive economy to a renewable economy.


To do so, according to Jackson, we need a 1960s man-on-the-moon type of “space program” that focuses on healing and renewing our “ecosphere.” One such project that Jackson demonstrated dramatically was development of the perennial grain, Kernza, a trademark developed by the Land Institute.

During his PASA Conference speech, Jackson used a pulley system to hoist a floor-to-ceiling banner depicting a graphic of an actual Kernza root system for the attendees to see, next to a short-rooted wheat annual. According to the Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Bulletin, the Kernza plant “comes from selected strains of wild intermediate wheatgrass grain,” which Jackson and his staff at the Land Institute near Salina, Kan. are crossing with annual wheat varieties to breed a commercially practical perennial grain.

According to the Energy Bulletin, the plant is “exceptionally high in some nutrients known to be important to human health and deficient in many modern diets: Omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, lutein and betaine. It is particularly high in folate, important for preventing stroke, cancer, heart disease and infertility.”

Jackson referenced the Biblical statement of “beating swords into plowshares,” when he said the plow itself “has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword.” Jackson said we have to save more of the planet’s biodiversity or we will compromise our very existence, as population swells.


Tim Bowser, an organizer of the first PASA Conference two decades ago, reminisced about the first conference in which organizers and attendees knew how important the need for radical change was.

“A lot of change has happened, but much, still too much, needs to be changed,” Bowser told the attendees. PASA’s executive director, Brian Snyder, also spoke about Obama’s State of the Union Address, which came at the same time as the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Seven astronauts were killed, a result of “errors of technological arrogance and human misjudgment.”

While Obama believes the generation needs a “Sputnik Moment” (wherein the old Soviet Union pushed the U.S. into mobilizing work to bring a man on the moon in the 1960s), Snyder believes that this generation’s “Challenger Moment,” he said, “is just around the corner as well.

“I think about all of these problems, including nutrient imbalance in the Chesapeake Watershed, unfettered and often irresponsible gas drilling, and the proliferation of genetic modification at the heart of our food system,” said Snyder. Together, Snyder said, “we claim our food-system future, or there may be no worthwhile future to claim at all.”


In 1992, at the first PASA Conference at the Nittany Lion Inn, there were more than “500 enthusiastic agriculture revolutionaries,” according to Kim Seeley, Milky Way Farms, PASA president. They realized how important it was to add “‘culture’ to agri-culture,” said Seeley.

Seeley spoke about his own journey, which began back in 1996, when he was frustrated with trying to farm “conventionally” and how he came to realize, in his own experience, how his work was not sustainable — and saw the light.

According to Brian Snyder, executive director of PASA, half of the PASA conference attendees are from farms representing more than 30,000 acres over 30 states.


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