THE PLOW. Today it is a nostalgic symbol of a nearly forgotten agrarian past. This farm tool evokes scenes of wholesome farmers who, by the sweat of their brow, churn under dark, rich soil with help from a friendly beast of burden. After scattering seeds of wheat and the blessing of good rain, those fields will become amber waves of grain. The family will celebrate another good harvest. The bread will sustain them through another winter until fields can be planted again.
Scraaatch. Wait a minute! Wes Jackson, geneticist, farmer, and author, wants to interrupt this pastoral vision. In fact, he would interpret it quite differently. He might describe a scene of environmental carnage in which an unwitting population slowly sows the seeds of our own destruction by slipping the plow blade under the living skin of a quickly failing planet. “The plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword,” Jackson states bluntly.
Nearly half of the world’s soil suitable for growing crops has disappeared since humans started tilling and planting. Today, up to 70 percent of our caloric intake comes from staple cereal crops planted in large-scale annual monocultures. A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimates that we are losing soil 10 times faster than we can replace it. While Jackson acknowledges that over-reliance on fossil fuels is a crucial issue, he argues that “soil is more important than oil and just as nonrenewable.”
In addition to the danger of soil loss, agricultural production “provides the lion’s share of greenhouse-gas emissions from the food system, releasing up to 86 percent of all food-related anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions.” The global food production system—from planting to packaging—contributes about one-third of all greenhouse-gas emissions, though this topic was not part of the recent climate negotiations in Paris.
While practices of low-till and no-till annual crops help reduce erosion and increase the availability of arable land as a carbon sink, these half-measures aren’t effective enough, according to Jackson. What he proposes is nothing less than a wholescale rethinking of the fundamental tenets of agriculture.