The root of the problem
At The Land Institute, we believe that a solution for the 10,000 year old problem of agriculture — soil loss and degradation, ecosystem destruction, and high energy use — is not only necessary, but possible. Our goal is to fashion an agriculture as sustainable as the native ecosystems it displaced, to find a way of growing crops that rewards the farmer and the landscape more than the manufacturers of external inputs. We envision an agriculture that not only protects irreplaceable soil, but lessens our dependence on fossil fuels and damaging synthetic chemicals.
Most of the food consumed by humans comes from annual grains, legumes, and oil seed crops, either directly or indirectly. We may eat the grains ourselves, or feed them to livestock that we eventually consume. Roughly 70 percent of global agricultural land is dedicated to producing them. Unfortunately, the way these crops are grown, even the very nature of the crops themselves, is destroying priceless ecological capital.
Annual crops are detrimental to soil, a natural resource in many ways more valuable than oil. In some cases, farmers plow deep furrows through the earth to plant their seeds. Other farmers rely on erosion-lessening no-till planting methods. The first one results in bare earth that extends an invitation to invasive weeds and leads to considerable erosion. The second relies on an arsenal of chemicals to subdue competitive plants.
To add insult to injury, the native, diverse plant community removed to create new cropland is replaced by a single plant monoculture. This unnatural state, acres upon acres of one plant, sets the stage for pathogens and insects to multiply at alarming rates, usually to be controlled with toxic pesticides. When diversity and perenniality are absent, one must compensate for the loss of ecological integrity with herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and over-fertilization, all of which can have a deeply negative impact on the planet.
Clearly, current agricultural practices fall well short of addressing the challenges they exacerbate: soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, the end of easily-accessible fossil fuels, expanding oceanic hypoxic zones, as well as degraded land, water and air. “Agriculture is the largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity,” according to the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Even flat and well-managed cropland can lose tons of topsoil per acre per year through erosion. The USDA has declared anything over five tons annually as “unsustainable.” Other researchers argue the number is much lower, at half to one ton of soil per acre. A recent study by the Environmental Working Group, using actual measurements, discovered agricultural land in six Iowa townships (roughly 138,000 acres) had disastrous average erosion rates exceeding 100 tons per acre annually. As it can take from 500 to 1,000 years to build an inch of new topsoil, these losses simply cannot be allowed to continue.
Soil isn’t the only thing traveling downstream and into the oceans and Gulf of Mexico. The runoff is often polluted with fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. Runoff measured on Iowa fields in 2009 exceeded an average 136,000 gallons an acre — with the most poorly protected areas exceeding 543,000 gallons. It’s widely accepted that only 30-60% of the nitrogen applied to farmland is absorbed by the intended crop. The rest ends up in the atmosphere, some as greenhouse gases, or it makes its way down creeks, streams and rivers until it reaches salt water and causes hypoxic, or dead, zones to form.
To say that the time-honored way of feeding ourselves is unsustainable is an understatement. If we are to have a global soil resource that can support human civilization, we need to find an entirely new way of farming, one that uses natural ecosystems as standards and achieves their level of resilience. We must bring perennial grain polycultures to our farms.
Developing a perennial solution
At The Land Institute, ecologists are exploring ways to grow grains, oilseeds and legumes together so cropland can once again benefit from the advantages of diverse perennial vegetation. These new crops arrangements will be less dependent on nitrogen-based fertilizers and better-equipped to anchor soil, virtually eliminating erosion and chemical runoff, and promise a much smaller energy cost. They interact in complementary ways to manage pathogens and pests naturally, all while providing food for years without replanting. In many situations, the deep roots of perennial grains will better withstand the drought or deluge likely to accompany climate change. They sequester carbon, which helps reduce greenhouse gases, and they host microorganisms and invertebrates that contribute to soil health.
In addition to transferring ecological patterns and processes from native ecosystems to agroecosystems, our work relies on human intervention and scientific creativity, especially in the breeding of perennial grains that don’t currently exist. Many people wonder how these new grains can be developed. At our research facility, they are bred in one of two ways. We start either with wild perennial plants and select those with the best crop potential (domestication), or cross an annual grain with a related perennial species (hybridization). Cycles of these steps are repeated over and over to create a desirable crop. Our scientists cull thousands of plants looking at yield, seed size, seed retention, plant height and other qualities that contribute to reliable, bountiful harvests. We then cross the most promising plants so that each generation has a better chance of superior traits.
Perennial grains are not yet available to farmers; creating them will take years of careful attention. We hope to begin releasing Kernza™, our first perennial grain, within a decade to farmers who will help fine-tune the crop. Other grains will be released as they become ready in the following years.
We are often asked when we will be done. The honest answer is never. Our germplasm must constantly evolve to be useful in different agroecosystems all around the world. For us there is no “endgame.” We openly share our research and germplasm with scientists all around the world; our work is gaining in national and international recognition. Collaborations are under way across the globe. Here in Kansas, we are working on four main crops pictured on the opposite page: intermediate wheatgrass (Kernza), wheat, sunflowers, and sorghum.
We intend to design an agriculture that relies on proven ecological patterns and processes to achieve sustainability, changing agriculture from being extractive and damaging to restorative and nurturing. This work requires help from people who honor the long term, those for whom instant gratification is not a priority. The Land Institute is a non-profit organization supported by donations from individuals, businesses, foundations, and private grants. We hope you will find our work worthy of your interest and support.