A Lunch with Wes Jackson: Thoughts on Sustainability


I recently had the pleasure of eating lunch next to Dr. Wes Jackson, President and Co-Founder of The Land Institute in Kansas. Among a plethora of other accolades, Rolling Stone Magazine just named him as one of the nation’s top 100 “Agents of Change” due to his lifetime commitment of creating a healthier agricultural system. The setting was a sunny spring afternoon on Earthbound Farm in Carmel Valley, in conjunction with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking For Solutions annual Sustainable Foods Institute for members of the media. We sat there, sipping iced tea and munching on salads and savory tarts (all made onsite at one of the few completely certified organic commercial kitchens in the U.S.), but the pleasant environment, the chitchat of food lovers and chirping birds nestled in the children’s herb playground, seemed to highlight an ironic contradiction as the self-described “Dr. Doom” earnestly discussed with me how we are running out of time.

The day before, Dr. Jackson opened the Institute with the first keynote speech of “Why Sustainability Matters.” This crowd of food writers and activists are constantly searching for a better, all-encompassing term to describe everything “sustainability” has come to illustrate, and that discussion alone could take up it’s own two day Institute. Jackson spoke about sustainability as a value term, like justice or health. These are things that cannot be defined because they are all subject to human history. The responsibility falls on those people who are passionate enough about value terms to defend them. That being said, his definition for the thrown around and subjective term is simply “living within our means,” the best examples are nature’s own ecosystems and economies, such as rainforests or prairies where water and sunlight act as vast self-sustaining recycling systems.

But then the “doom” descended when he told us that the “population bomb is still ticking and consumption is on the increase.” He aptly compared our country’s financial deficit spending mess to how we treat the environment, starting 13,000 years ago with the first agricultural systems. Without our overdrawn soil, forests, and coal carbon, we would still be a healthy hunter-gatherer society. Today, a 10 year old has consumed 25% of all oil ever burned and a 22 year old has consumed more than 50%. In a nutshell, these statistics he presented indicate the alarming rate of consumption we, as a planet, are gobbling up in the modern day compared to pre-industrialization. And when 70% of our calories on a global level are derived from grain, it makes agriculture the primary cause of the planet’s degradation.

Last month I wrote a piece here at Civil Eats that presented, in my mind, examples of “sustainable” food communities. For me, the solution that always makes the most sense when thinking about our current food system is to bring the focus back in, to zoom the macro lens to micro and do everything on a local level. Between bites of golden beets and shaved fennel I posed this idea to the kind Dr. “Don’t we just need to create self-sustaining systems one small community at a time?” I rosily queried. He turned to me and gave me this answer: “Well, I’m not sure, but it strikes me that that might be escapism.”

Yep. I’ve been a bit naïve. Although the “buy fresh, buy local” ideology is wonderful, and “food not lawns” should reign supreme, some of these ideas may just be a simplistic, black and white way to rationalize my safe little bubble of privilege living in progressive, fertile California bounty. When examining the real problems of global hunger, climate change, peak oil, etc., just skipping over to my favorite farmers market for a basket of strawberries doesn’t seem to fit into the fix-it equation. Paul Robert’s article “Spoiled” in the last issue of Mother Jones discusses this problem as well. He writes, “When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists-such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches-only on a much larger scale. The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you’re done.”

He goes on to discuss that our ideology of local equals better does not always take into account food miles accurately. Sometimes the carbon footprint of a fully stocked semi carrying goods from a single source distributor is less than the food miles tallied up from all the farmers participating in a single farmers market. In fact, at Cooking For Solutions 2007, CEO of Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO) Fedele Bauccio discussed this same idea. His company is a great example of how big does not always mean bad. They have made a strong commitment to being a leader in responsible food practices and have the power to actually fund research, implement programs, and alter trends on a corporate level. While putting together the impressive BAMC Low Carbon Diet program, Bauccio found that completely local purchasing models were actually less efficient than regional spending. And this program also corroborates that the emissions released due to transporting food is actually less than one-tenth of its total environmental toll. We should be looking at how food is produced (fuel and water inputs/outputs for things like meat and dairy) much more than if it is made in this county or the next, and limiting how much of those high methane gas and nitrous oxide generators we put into our diet.

But the carbon impact is just one issue. What about space to actually grow all of this sustainable food? Will we just hope that the people in our society who actually have the money to afford large expanses of land will want a variety of fruits and vegetables growing there? And is there even enough rural land on this planet to feed our entire population without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers? Robert sites environmental scientist Vaclav Smil who essentially says that farmland would have to possibly triple, eliminating rainforests, grasslands and prairies, and our whole labor force would have to become field workers.

Okay, so I’ve been hit in the head with a reminder to think outside of myself, to broaden my scope and remember that we are tiny ants in a huge universe that needs some work if we are to survive. What should I do now? What are the big solutions if growing my own tomatoes and sharing my Meyer lemon marmalade isn’t enough? Too bad, it’s not that simple. There won’t ever be a checklist for being sustainable. All we can do is stay motivated, note advances and focus on ideas that prioritize balance within all the issues, from carbon footprints to labor rights to accessibility to the environment. Putting aside stoicism and unwavering one-track thinking to embrace a little cooperation, even if it means (gasp!), learning something from a farmer that uses a little bit of Roundup once in awhile. (Also read fellow Civil Eats blogger Rose Hayden-Smith’s post, “There Is No Box: Big Ideas About Urban Agriculture and Local Food Systems”)

After a whole life of studying botany, biology and genetics, Dr. Jackson has come to the conclusion that we need to perennialize crops to end fossil fuel dependency and reduce chemical contamination and dead zones. We need a 50-year farm bill and we need to grow double the amount of vegetables and trees. Some other current thoughts dwell on polyculture, vertical urban farming, roof top gardens on big-box stores, inner-city produce mobiles. The ideas are out there, the theories are abundant, but remember to shake yourself from time to time and make sure the whole picture is in view.

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  1. Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009
    what a great man and institute!
  2. Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009
    great post. a little realism now and again is a good thing. one of the lasgest CSA farmers in Maryland thinks his soil might be better off if he stopped tilling, dropped his organic moniker and started using some Roundup. makes you think
  3. Amerigo
    Thursday, June 4th, 2009
    “Don’t we just need to create self-sustaining systems one small community at a time?” I rosily queried. He turned to me and gave me this answer: “Well, I’m not sure, but it strikes me that that might be escapism.”

    Not to mention, if we did create self-sustaining communities, we would bring back feudal economies and relegate most of us to serfdom. Or some mad-max ultra libertarian version of it. It is escapism. We cannot escape the global economy, but we do need to figure out how to make it more sustainable. And that's why we need more Wes Jacksons.