Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry on the mistake of agriculture and country life versus city life
By Addie Broyles | Wednesday, December 7, 2011, 03:54 PM
At two sold-out shows at Stateside at the Paramount on Sunday, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, two of the most respected men in the sustainable food movement, talked as much about the philosophies of human existence as the perils of modern agriculture.
Sure, they talked about the specifics of soil erosion, ethanol subsidies, carbon extraction and the over-grazing of pastured animals, but at the heart of their discussion with Edible Austin publisher Marla Camp at this Eat Drink Local Week event was a bigger, harder-to-answer issue: How do we survive as a species when we’ve spent 10,000 creating a civilization around taking more from the earth than we put back in?
“Agriculture is one big mistake,” said Jackson, who in 1976 started a nonprofit organization and farm called the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Because we rely on annual crops — all crops, not just the genetically modified ones — we are putting everything at risk. “The rise and fall of civilization is determined on the condition of the soil,” he said. “We never had to think below the surface because we kept finding new land to exploit.”
Wheat, for instance, is an annual crop whose yearly harvest and planting requires farmers to disturb the ground, killing the ecosystems already living there. With grains representing 70 percent of our calories and 70 percent of tilled agriculture acreage, this leads to millions of acres of soil that erode easily in the wind and rain and contain vital ecosystems that have to start rebuilding themselves every year.
“We came here as poor people on rich land, but now we are rich people on poor land,” Jackson said. As we made “progress,” we didn’t realize what we were undoing in the process. Our society is built upon the withdrawal on the “capital stock of the earth,” he said.