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3 Wise Men, Planting Ideas Where It Counts

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Eating is an agricultural act," essayist Wendell Berry famously wrote. It's also a political one. Which is why last week Berry, geneticist Wes Jackson and sustainable-agriculture advocate Fred Kirschenmann made a pilgrimage to Washington to make a case for a new kind of food policy.

Jackson is president of the Kansas-based Land Institute; Kirschenmann is a fellow at Iowa State University's Leopold Center and president of New York's Stone Barns Center. The three met with administration officials and senators to promote a 50-year-farm bill, a proposal for gradual, systemic change in American farming. The plan asks for $50 million annually for plant breeding and genetics research. But it also puts forward a new vision of agriculture, one that values not only yields but also local ecosystems, healthy food and rural communities.

Staff writer Jane Black talked with them about the future of agriculture, urban "food citizens" and whether genetically modified food can save the world. Excerpts follow:

So, word is you have a plan to save agriculture?

Jackson: We are here to promote the necessity and possibility of a 50-year farm bill in which each of the five-year farm bills would be mileposts. The idea begins with acknowledging that nature covers much of the land with perennials, and agriculture reversed that thousands of years ago. In our modern times, we've offset the consequences with management techniques and fossil fuels that are nonrenewable and contribute to greenhouse gases.

Why are perennials so important?

Jackson: They have an extensive root system and give cover year-round. With annuals, you tear the ground up every year and leave it subject to the forces of wind and water. What got us started many years ago was not the greenhouse gas issue; it was the soil erosion issue.

Kirschenmann: We have some ideas that are grounded in 30 years of solid experience. We want to get the ideas out there and say, here is a new way to do this that can address the issues that we're starting to face in agriculture. As energy costs go up, the current industrial system is not going to be able to sustain itself. There aren't going to be enough public subsidies to keep it going. And so people are then going to be really looking for alternatives. And that's why we need to do the research now.

Wendell's collection of essays, "The Unsettling of America," was published in the 1977. In it, he highlighted the same problems we face today: the disappearance of small farmers, increased chemical use, etc. Are you optimistic that this time something will change?

Berry: The tragedy of that book is that 32 years after it was published, it's still relevant. If it were obsolete, we'd be a lot happier. I'm not optimistic, but I think there's some reason to hope, because this conversation is broadening. We're building a constituency, an urban agrarian constituency that is devoted to farmers markets and community-supported agriculture.

Is that urban constituency important? In other words, are advocates right that we can "vote with our forks"?

Berry: You've got a farm population that's too small to count. So should we delude ourselves that we represent a politically significant population? No farmer thinks that. We're not going to get anywhere if we don't have urban allies.

Kirschenmann: One of the things that's changing, and it's still at its very early stages, is we're no longer seeing communities of farmers and consumers. We're starting to see them as food citizens. Part of what changed that is the food crisis of the last 24 months.

You mean rising food prices?

Kirschenmann: Yes.

More and more people are aware that our current food system is not as secure as we thought. One week it's [food tainted with] melamine, another week it's peanut butter, and so people, their consciousness around food issues is emerging and they're wondering what to do. They want a more trusting relationship with where their food comes from.

Genetically modified plants have plenty of traction in the Obama administration as a solution to feed the world. Do you agree?

Kirschenmann: If you think about it, that approach really isn't working here. If it weren't for subsidies, farmers wouldn't be able to buy the technologies that are supposed to save us. How are African farmers going to afford the technologies? So one of the things we're starting to see -- and President Obama mentioned it in his comments at G8 -- is that we need to address the problem of hunger, but the way we need to address it is to work with people in the communities.

But companies such as Monsanto argue that population growth makes technology essential.

Berry: The inevitable aim of industrial agri-investors is the big universal solution. They want a big product that can be marketed everywhere. And the kind of agriculture we're talking about that leads to food security and land conservation is locally adapted agriculture. And they can't do that. Industrial agriculture plants cornfields in Arizona; locally adapted agriculture says, what can we fit in this place that will not destroy it? Or what can nature help us to do here? That's the critical issue.

Washington doesn't think in 50-year increments. How do you sell this?

Jackson: You sell it the same way as global warming or population growth. Washington thinks it's going to deal with the global warming problem in 50 years? We will have this if we get cracking.

Kirschenmann: Because of our election cycles, you're right. People tend to think in terms of two-year, four-year or six-year cycles. But I think the effort to deal with climate change is starting to change with that, because they know they can't deal with climate change on that timeline. They have to extend the horizon. So we think the time is right to add agriculture to that.

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