FOOD: Tackling the Oldest Environmental Problem: Agriculture and Its Impact on Soil by Wes Jackson


I want to talk about the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture and how it is both necessary and possible to solve it. Were it necessary but not possible this idea would be grandiose, and were it possible but not necessary it would be grandiose. But it has passed the test of grandiosity.

Figure 10.1 illustrates what most people think about when they talk about sustainable agriculture. This is part of an ad for a sustainable-agriculture conference in Chicago. Look at the diversity and think hard about how much that informs the sustainable-agriculture movement. There is not a single grain there. And what’s wrong with that? The foods shown there represent fewer than 25 percent of the calories that humans eat, and I have a $100 bet that 70 percent of the calories eaten by the people in the most economically important agricultural state, California, come over the Sierra Nevada and up from Mexico in the form of grains.

In the background of all of us organisms on Earth is what I call the 3.45-billion-year imperative. We are a carbon-based planet. The carbon that enters so importantly into our bodies, we all now know, was cooked in the remote past of a dying star. But humans, with the big brain, have been around for only 150,000 to 200,000 years, and only some 11,000 to 13,000 years before the present we got to the first pool of energy-rich carbon, the young pulverized coal of the soil. And we mostly wasted it. With the opening of the North American continent, some soil scientists estimate the United States went from around 6 percent carbon to around 3 percent. I think that’s when global warming began, with agriculture 10,000 years ago.

About 5,000 years ago, the second pool of energy-rich carbon, the forests, made it possible to smelt ore and brought on the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The third pool, 250 years ago, was coal, which brought on the Industrial Revolution. Then in 1859 Edwin Drake drilled a well in western Pennsylvania and opened up the fourth pool, oil. And then came natural gas, the fifth pool, used not just for lighting and heating but also for fertilizer. These are the five pools of energy-rich carbon that stand behind civilization. I like to think what it would have been like had we not had, first of all, civilization that came from the soil. We wouldn’t have had Plato, Aristotle, Jesus of Nazareth. And, of course, if it hadn’t been for soil, forest, and coal, we would not have had Darwin—it took the slack that the British Empire had to send a naturalist around the world. I suspect that without oil we would not have had the Hubble Telescope and may not have known about how the elements have been cooked in dying stars. In other words, these five pools have given us knowledge of how the world is. What does this have to do with anything? Well, it gives us a perspective of where we come from and what kind of a thing we are.

About The Post Carbon Reader

Post Carbon Reader coverHow do population, water, energy, food, and climate issues impact one another? What can we do to address one problem without making the others worse? The Post Carbon Reader features essays by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the key issues shaping our new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and community resilience. This insightful collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandary and presents some of the most promising responses.

Contributors to The Post Carbon Reader are some of the world’s leading sustainability thinkers, including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Wes Jackson, Erika Allen, Gloria Flora, and dozens more.