There was a time, not so long ago, in our great Northwest when boundaries were not a great concern. When the first non-Indian settlers reached the Palouse and the Columbia Plateau, they could look to the distant horizon and see nothing but blue sky and virgin prairie and shrub-steppe, potential farmland as far as they could imagine. And as they learned to know the land, they reveled in what the college scientists told them, of seemingly endless topsoil, of windblown loess 200 feet deep. But even as that soil washed and blew away at an unsettling rate, they also learned to ignore the worries of those same scientists and wiped the dirt from their foreheads with studied denial.
Nevertheless, a providential climate, fertile soil, and, in the drier regions, massive irrigation projects helped create the agricultural paradise the pioneers had dreamed of as they loaded their wagons, turned their backs on an exhausted East, and pointed their oxen West.
But that golden period of conquest and opportunity was soon expired. The endless land filled up, an agricultural empire finally bounded by ocean and desert and international border. And now, slowly, we’re starting to understand that the geographical sorts are not the only boundaries that hem us in.
In a recent paper in Nature, Johan Rockström and colleagues urge that a “safe operating space for humanity” be defined by scientifically determined, quantifiable planetary boundaries. Our home is not as boundless as we’d hoped, and feeding a burgeoning population is unfortunately not entirely consistent with the health of the planet itself. Just as our westward expansion was finally bounded by the Pacific Ocean, our earthly continuation will depend on recognizing the boundaries of climate change, of biodiversity loss, of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, of ozone depletion, and other factors.
In an even more recent policy paper in Science, WSU soil scientist John Reganold and colleagues argue that if we are to meet these considerable challenges, we must start thinking bigger. Although incremental approaches have established a robust modern agriculture, meeting the demands of both planetary health and a growing population will require a transformative approach that “builds on an understanding of agriculture as a complex socioecological whole.”
Anticipating that transformative challenge, the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture’s Climate Friendly Farming project has explored our impending dilemmas from the perspective of an intriguing observation: “While all economic sectors emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, only agriculture and forestry also absorb it.”
Over the last several years, the project has identified promising management strategies and technologies that could mitigate agriculture’s contributions to the greenhouse gases that are changing our global climate. Among them are reducing the emissions, restoring carbon to soil, and replacing fossil-fuel derived products with biomass-derived products.
Through their aspiration and research, these scientists are leading the way in molding the mission of the land grant university toward the husbandry of a planet that is at once bounded and bountiful.
Tim Steury, Editor