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Free your mind and learn the truth

By George B. Pyle
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Thursday, Sept. 5, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- In an article distributed in August by the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, two defenders of modern, chemical-intensive agriculture sought to discredit one critic of such practices - me - by dismissing one of the research institutions that is seeking a better way.

In so doing, Dennis Avery and Alex R. Avery merely succeed in discrediting themselves among knowledgeable people by drawing a slanderous caricature of an institution and a philosophy that they are clearly unable to grasp.

To listen to the Averys, The Land Institute of Salina, Kan., is some kind of retrograde band of Khmer Rouge activists who want to return to the very sort of destructive agriculture that created the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s. I have worked at The Land Institute for the past year, and have followed its work for the past decade. I know the Averys' image of this institution is wrong.

Their false description of The Land Institute omits any mention of president and co-founder Wes Jackson, a Pew Conservation Scholar, MacArthur Fellow and recipient of the 2000 Right Livelihood Award, an honor known as the "alternative Nobel prize". And how they could even speak of The Land Institute without mentioning its guiding philosophy, Natural Systems Agriculture, is impossible to understand if they were interested in a fair and factual discussion of the issues.

The Averys' article was written to attack a piece I had written for the Los Angeles Times, which was subsequently distributed nationally and picked up by several newspapers. In it, I express concern that modern agricultural methods are eroding our precious topsoil at an alarming rate. The erosion is washing pesticides, fertilizers and animal wastes down the rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico, where an 8,500-square-mile "dead zone" of oxygen-depleted ocean has harmed both wildlife and the fishing industry.

These are very real and very serious issues. They damage farmers today and threaten the rest of us tomorrow. They will not be solved by any Dr. Pangloss praise of today's chemical-intensive style of farming. And the discussion will not be advanced by one side totally misrepresenting the beliefs and methods of the other.

If the Averys had bothered to check the facts - easily done at http://www.landinstitute.org- they could have discovered that The Land Institute is nothing like the retrograde institution they imagine. Nothing in our work or our goals is in search of any pre-Dust Bowl means of farming. And it most certainly is not a kind of land-gobbling agriculture that will leave, as the Averys falsely claim, no room for wildlife.

The Land Institute represents an entirely new way of thinking about agriculture, a way so foreign to its detractors that they apparently cannot understand it and thus fear and attack it.

The guiding principle of The Land Institute is Natural Systems Agriculture. This means Nature is the measure of success in what is, unavoidably, a biological endeavor. Because we are located in central Kansas, the prairie provides our model of Nature. But a deep understanding of any ecosystem should allow humanity to live in harmony with their corner of Nature rather than attempt to subdue or ignore it.

The prairie, like other ecosystems, teems with life, life that no one has to plant, weed, fertilize, water or otherwise alter because, through the interplay of perennial plants, animals, microbes, water and sunlight, it does all those things itself. An agriculture that looked like that could feed humanity in ways that also provide most, if not all, of its own energy, pest control, nutrients and water, keep soil in place and provide a home for wildlife.

Such an agriculture, to be successful, would not only have to feed people while preserving the soil and other natural resources, it would also have to provide a decent living for farmers. The Land Institute is well aware that these good stewards of the earth are the primary victims of today's industrial agriculture.

A move to Natural Systems Agriculture is easier said than done. Years' more research will be necessary to breed the kinds of grains that thrive like prairie grasses yet yield the amount of seed necessary to feed humanity. But progress is being made. And still more progress would be possible if people would free their minds enough to understand what The Land Institute is truly all about.

- George B. Pyle is a director of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. He is writing a book about the advantages of small-scale farming over the industrial model of agriculture.