35 Who Made a Difference: Wes Jackson

In Kansas, a plant geneticist sows the seeds of sustainable agriculture

Wes Jackson
Wikimedia Commons

Wes Jackson is a large man with the metabolism of a hummingbird. This is a good thing, because a commanding physical presence and oodles of restless, probing energy are likely prerequisites for the job Jackson has carved out for himself: nothing less than the overthrow of agriculture as we know it.

Farming, in Jackson's view, is humanity's original sin. This fall from grace occurred around 10,000 years ago, when people first started gathering and planting the seeds of annual grasses, such as wild wheat and barley. "That was probably the first moment when we began to erode the ecological capital of the soil," he says. "It's when humans first started withdrawing the earth's nonrenewable resources." As he sees it, fossil-fuel dependency, environmental pollution, overpopulation and global warming are all extensions of the path humans took when they first started tilling the soil. "It wasn't intentional. It didn't require a chamber of commerce or the devil to make us do it—we just did it."

Jackson, 69, has spent the past 29 years blazing a path to redemption. After earning a PhD in genetics from North Carolina State University, he abandoned a tenured faculty position at California State University at Sacramento in 1976 to return to his native Kansas. There, near Salina, he co-founded the Land Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. "The Land," as its many devotees call it, is equal parts plant-breeding station, teaching hub and intellectual center for what Jackson terms "natural systems agriculture." The first commandment of his creed is to mimic nature, rather than dominating or ignoring it. "Our beginning point is to look at nature's ecosystems and how they worked for millions of years," he says with a resonant Kansas drawl. "Where they’re still in existence, natural ecosystems recycle soil nutrients and run on sunlight. They almost always feature perennial plants in mixtures: agriculture reversed that."

To reconcile agriculture with nature's perennial example, researchers at the Land Institute have toiled since 1978 to create a kind of botanical chimera: plants that look, above ground, much like annual crops, such as sorghum and sunflowers. Below ground, however, they have deep, perennial root systems, like those of the mixed wild grasses and legumes that carpeted the Midwest and Great Plains before the plow came and turned the prairie upside down. This is no small feat of gene-jockeying. In mainstream plant-breeding, developing a routine new wheat variety (a minor genetic variant that has, say, higher yields than similar varieties under drought conditions) takes about 10 to 15 years. What the Land Institute's breeders are trying to accomplish is a good deal more ambitious than that. They began by taking wild prairie species, such as a legume known as Illinois bundleflower, and trying to make them more like domestic crops, with large, abundant seeds that remain on the plant until harvested. About five years ago, the breeders also began pursuing a parallel strategy—crossing annual crops like wheat and sunflowers with wild relatives to create perennial hybrids.

"We have sort of a crash program to develop these crops—if you can have a crash program that's going to take decades," says Stan Cox, the Land Institute's director of research. "The timeline we're working on shows us having a set of perennial grain-producing crops that would be usable in agriculture somewhere between 25 and 50 years from now." These next-generation crops would recycle soil nutrients, sharply reducing the need for fertilizer. More important, the perennials' deep roots would remain, anchoring topsoil; only crop-bearing stalks would be harvested.

Can they do it? "From a plant-breeding standpoint, it's likely that what they're trying to do is indeed possible," says Charlie Brummer, a plant geneticist at Iowa State University. "But it will take a long time. The question is, can they keep it up for that long?"

Jackson is doing his best to see that they can. Since he last appeared in these pages 15 years ago, his role has shifted from hands-on researcher to globe-trotting visionary. "The difference between 1990 and now," he says, "is that then, we were focused on identifying the necessity" for fundamental change in agriculture. "We've done that. Now, an increasing number of people are acknowledging that necessity."

And acknowledging his tireless evangelism. In 1990, he was named a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment. He received a MacArthur "genius" award in 1992, and in 2000, a Right Livelihood Award—the so-called "alternative Nobel Prize" presented annually in Sweden.

Broader recognition has allowed the institute to establish what may be its best survival insurance: a graduate fellowship program that attracts young academics from universities across the country. Each year, the program receives around 40 proposals, typically projects on ecology or plant breeding that involve diverse perennial crop species, of which the Land Institute funds eight or nine. "By providing seed funding," Jackson says, no pun intended, "we leverage the research funding of institutions with larger budgets. So far, we have 18 or 20 graduate fellows out there spreading the Land Institute virus, in hopes that they can overcome the agricultural establishment's immune system." He erupts with deep belly laughter that reveals, as plainly as anything else, the good-humored iconoclasm that has struck so deeply at the roots of our most basic need—to eat.

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