Driving north from Wichita, Kansas, toward Salina on a warm day last October, I saw an oil-well pump sitting in the middle of a sorghum field. And not just one. As I drove, I saw hundreds more, maybe thousands, all surrounded by amber waves of grain. Like giant, insatiable gulls, they bobbed their heads up and down, up and down, gulping black crude from the earth’s depths. Oil wells in farm fields. Here was a symbol for modern agriculture, dependent on petroleum-based fertilizer to produce high yields.
I had come to Kansas to meet one of its native sons, a man who has dedicated his life to changing the way we grow food. Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist, president of the Land Institute, and, at age seventy-four, one of the godfathers — along with farmer and author Wendell Berry — of the sustainable-agriculture movement. Thanks to bestsellers like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, that movement has gone mainstream. We’ve been told that our food system is broken, and the fix is to grow food organically and procure it locally. The organic farmer eschews pesticides, spreads compost instead of nitrogen-based fertilizer, and sells her Hakurei turnips at the Saturday-morning market. All big improvements, says Jackson, but ones that stop short of a solution. They are answers to problems in agriculture, when we have yet to address the problem of agriculture itself, a ten-thousand-year-old bad habit that Jackson believes is humanity’s original sin.