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Natural Systems Agriculture

We now have a chance to seriously work toward solving the problem of agriculture, rather than constantly trying to solve problems in agriculture. It's feasible now for agriculture to be based on the way Nature's ecosystems have worked over millions of years rather than on Nature being subdued or ignored. Natural Systems Agriculture is going to require about twenty-five years and in the neighborhood of $100-150 million spread over that twenty-five-year period: peanuts, really. Soil erosion, according to Dave Pimentel at Cornell, costs over $44 billion per year. I think we're at an exact instant in history in which the evolutionary ecological paradigm with its modern molecular synthesis is going to stand over and against the human cleverness approach promoted by the Monsantos of the world. It's not that I'm totally against all kinds of gene-splicing or biotechnology, but they ought to be in a subordinate role.

I'm hopeful that we can convince an increasing number of smart scientists and others to get cracking on this. We're also going to need the people out of the humanities and the social sciences to help keep Natural Systems Agriculture on track. When the radical nature of what we're talking about becomes apparent, it's going to require support from a broad spectrum of people. The Monsantos, the pharmaceutical houses, and the seed houses that now own so much won't be happy. We're going to need people who will protect Natural Systems Agriculture so that the rewards run to the farmer and the landscape. If that doesn't happen, farmers are increasingly going to be part of a feudal system, a proletariat that is effectively serving the owners of the land and the input. What's on the line is nothing less than whether we're going to remain relatively free or whether we're going to keep feeding the oligarchy. So, it's radical from several points of view: Nature's not to be subdued or ignored but looked to; rewards go to the farmer and the landscape rather than to the suppliers of input who are laundering the subsidies (or, more precisely, to the suppliers for whom the farmers are laundering the subsidies). Natural Systems Agriculture is, then, a direct challenge to the Baconian-Cartesian world view in favor of an evolutionary, ecological view.

The industrial hero says we must feed the world. The evolutionary ecological agriculturist, on the other hand, says the world must be fed. The latter recognizes important nuanced differences: the reality of the ecological mosaic and a kind of agriculture interested in local adaptation.

On the one hand, a common philosophy of bioregional specialization unites so-called Third World people with people in industrialized society. Respecting evolution in natural selection—different bioregions favor different plants— also gives respect to a mosaic of agricultures. That's the uniting principle.

On the other hand, the industrial approach of those who have the oil and the natural gas—the industrial input—is essentially to parachute technologies into Third World economies and set up brittle infrastructures. So solving the problem, it seems to me, is demonstrating that local adaptation, honoring the reality of the mosaic, united under a sort of common paradigm, and an agriculture based on efficiencies inherent in the natural integrities (which haven't really been tapped), will make it possible for us to beat the pants off of industrial-input monocultures. Our Sunshine Farm� acres run on contemporary sunlight—is in its sixth field season. We're establishing an even playing field for comparison, eventually, of perennial polycultures with industrial-input farms.

Vaclav Smeil, an energy geographer, has asked people about the most important invention of the twentieth century, the most important and the most fundamental, in existential terms, for the largest number of people. He says nothing comes close to the Hobber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia, first introduced in 1913 and commercialized after World War I. Synthetic nitrogen now supplies about half of the nutrients to the world's annual and permanent crops. Roughly one-half of humanity is now alive due to Hobbler-Bosch synthesis. So we can ask how many of the 5.3 billion global total population would be here without this nitrogen input and the natural gas that is the feed stock for it.

There's natural gas now, for fertilizers and petrochemicals, but ultimately it will be coal. Why do we have to constantly look to these non-renewables? That's a question that ought to be on everybody's plate. What goes along with petrochemical- and coal-derived pesticides, of course, is the introduction of chemicals we haven't evolved with. I mean this is the roundup now. It's turning out Roundup is not benign. We're going to see more and more cancers showing up. We're going to find social dislocation, and on, and on.

The Darwinian view says you don't put chemicals out there which we haven't evolved with. The Baconian-Cartesian view ignores this. So, this isn't just mere philosophy for the purpose of sounding erudite, it's hard. We're talking about something real.

What I'm getting at is that there is an alternative: the efficiencies inherent within the natural integrities of nature's ecosystems. These efficiencies have scarcely been tapped. We have to try to maximize our mimicry of natural systems in various places across the farming mosaic. In our projects at the Land Institute, we view the human as fundamentally a grass-seed eater; something like seventy to eighty percent of our calories globally come from the grass family. And we're lucky to be near a lot of grass-dominated ecosystems that we can look to to see how they worked. I love John Todd's language: elegant solutions predicated on the uniqueness of place. The homogenizer doesn't pay attention to that.