Foodshed Challenges Require New Thinking

Wes Jackson and Kernza

The second day of the International Water Conservation Conference focused on the foodshed challenges of the future–from large-scale agriculture to individual efforts.

The keynote address was presented by Wes Jackson, president and founder of the Land Institute in Kansas. In an entertaining and enlightening way he explained the need for developing an agriculture system that’s more sustainable and based on perennial grains instead of annual monocultures like corn.

Wes advocates for a new paradigm for agriculture that’s based on natural systems agriculture that operate more like a natural prairie.

He cited data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that shows more than 854 million people around the world are food insecure; 100 million because of the rising price of commodities like corn, wheat, rice and soybeans. “Now we have global warming to contend with,” he said. The combination of these two problems will lead to an increase in food supply problems.

Since 1976 the Land Institute has been working on ways to make large-scale agriculture more sustainable. One major effort is breeding perennial grain crops by crossing domestic plants with wild perennials to develop a new hybrid named Kernza, an intermediate wheatgrass. This plant has a different root architecture that helps it harvest and manage nutrients more efficiently, while holding valuable soil in place. (Just look at the roots in the picture!)

This is the first time we will be able to build a sustainable agriculture as strong as the one we destroyed,” he said. “It’s a visionary approach to protect our soils with perennials.”

On a smaller scale, Doug Fine spoke on his experiment to live without fossil fuels in the 21st Century. Doug, author of Farewell, My Subaru, said it’s possible to combine living sustainably with the ability to Google. His takeaway message for the audience was, “If this guy can do it, I can do it.”

Doug is about three years into living without fossil fuels and said he wanted to be able to power his home, grow food and run his truck without petroleum. On his Funky Butte Ranch in New Mexico, he uses solar power to run just about everything. Doug keeps goats for their milk and company and drives a truck that uses waste vegetable oil.

“A big quest for me was to create zero carbon mile ice cream,” he said. Thanks to the goats and agave as a sugar substitute he’s been able to reach that goal.  He added that there’s a solution to every sustainable problem.  Doug ended his program with the mantra, “Green is patriotic.”

Judith Phillips, landscape designer and one of the founding members of the Xeriscape Council of New Mexico, shared her insights with the group on how to share the watershed and foodshed with wildlife. She told us that people need to get over the notion that we are different from wildlife. “We are wildlife,” she said.

She emphasized everyone needs to create a habitat that helps support wildlife. This includes adding a water source to the landscape, establishing diverse plants in layers, adding nesting spaces and food sources rich in nectar.

“Humans are the wild card in all of this,” she said. We need to be connected to nature to understand how to take care of nature.”

Paul Stamets, one of the foremost mushroom experts in the country and author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, started his presentation with a question: “What do mycelium and fungi have to do with xeriscape?”

The answer: “Everything.”

Mycelium is the threadlike body of a fungus and networks of mycelia generate soil and help move water.  “It’s earth’s natural Internet,” he said. With enough water, and under the right conditions, mycelia produce mushrooms.

Paul promotes the use of mycelial membranes for a healthy ecology. For example, mycelium has many real-world applications including mycofiltration and mycoremediation for restoring habitats. In addition, Paul has patents pending for using mushrooms as mycopesticides.

Deborah Madison is a chef, cookbook author and a founding member of the Slow Food Movement. Her presentation on “Farm to Table” was about the connection of food sources to communities and consumers’ plates. She explained how large the scope of Farm to Table thinking has become.

Some of the key components of Farm to Table include:
•    The desire to trace food to its source
•    The need to reduce the carbon footprint
•    The idea of taste education
•    Getting children involved in growing vegetables
•    The impact on nutrition
•    The politics of the plate that create impractical regulations

I was sorry to have to leave the conference at this point to catch my plane home to Denver. I missed the local foodshed panel and Basia Irland’s Art and Water Conservation presentation.

This conference is one of my educational highlights of the year. I always return with new ideas to explore and to write about. I’m planning on writing a more in-depth summary of the conference very soon.

Which of the topics covered in the conference are most important to you?


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