When I first moved to Kansas to work at The Land Institute back in 2012, I remember learning of the state’s motto, ad astra per aspera, which roughly translates from Latin—to the stars through difficulties. I remember thinking, “I don’t know about the rest of Kansas, but that motto definitely applies to the work of The Land Institute!” Our work to develop perennial crops and then grow them in ecologically synergistic combinations is novel and challenging, yet it continues to progress and expand, moving us closer to the stars every year. There are of course difficulties, and this year we joined the rest of humanity in experiencing one that is not new, but just came into greater focus—the planet is warming and we need to rapidly and dramatically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Again, nothing new here, but the sum of reports and real-life experiences underscoring that message were no longer deniable. And as with the rest of the global economy, the implications for agriculture are profound.
Planet-wide, the last seven years have been the warmest on record, and this last July was the hottest month in recorded history. In the middle of this record hot summer, a study was published by researchers at Kansas State and North Carolina State Universities reporting how staple grain crops like wheat and rice are predicted to suffer significant yield reductions, particularly because of gradually increasing nighttime temperatures. The study added to a growing list of how farmers and the food they grow will be negatively impacted by a rapidly changing climate. Other studies illustrate various farming challenges that are appearing as predicted, including the expanding ranges of pest insects and diseases, and storms becoming less predictable but more intense. Historically, climate change scientists, including the thousands who have made up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have cautiously couched their responses to current climate dynamics with language like, “the frequency of these hurricanes or the duration of these droughts are consistent with what we would expect to happen in a climate-changing world.” In the 2021 IPCC report on the physical basis of climate change, cautious couching gave way to bold stark statements, such as:
- It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.
- Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.
- Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.
- Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.
In sum, the IPCC report characterizes the climate situation as a “code red for humanity.”
The difficulties involved in addressing vast global challenges of energy and climate will require countless small and large solutions to be aggressively pursued at the same time. In framing responses to climate change, scientists and policy makers often divide the world into actions of mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation responses are enacted to reduce the concentration of climate forcing gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4), while adaptation responses are designed to help human society and all of life on earth survive and live productive, satisfactory lives on a hotter, less predictable planet. Perennial grains are increasingly identified as one promising solution that could deliver climate change mitigation and adaptation.
While not a replacement for phasing out fossil fuels, perennial grains hold unique and robust promise for sequestering substantial quantities of soil carbon that were lost to the atmosphere as CO2 when natural ecosystems were first converted to annual grain production that required tillage. Perennial grains also have the potential to reduce soil emissions of the potent greenhouse gas N2O because of how efficiently they take up nitrogen and water from deep in the soil over much of the year. Reductions of N2O become even more likely if the nitrogen being supplied to a cereal crop is coming from an intercropped nitrogen-fixing legume. These are very real mitigation strategies that happen simply by growing perennial polycultures. So many other mitigation strategies require farmers or engineers to take often expensive or burdensome additional actions like spreading crushed basalt rock or building CO2-capturing industrial plants to achieve atmospheric CO2 drawdown.
Perennial grains may also be important in adapting to climate change. If rains come less frequently but with greater intensity, as predicted in some regions, deep-rooted perennial crops are expected to achieve greater infiltration of water into the soil and subsequent uptake of the stored water over time given the year-round presence of deep roots. Timely crop initiation can spell the difference between a good versus a poor harvest for many famers in semi-arid regions of the world. With perennials, farmers do not have to wait for it to rain for crops to initiate growth at the beginning of a growing season as they do when growing annual crops from seed.
There are numerous other examples of how perennial polycultures may contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. I will conclude by mentioning a very important one that has received only minimal attention to date. Perennial polycultures have a unique potential to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint itself, thus presenting a pathway to help wean grain agriculture from fossil fuels in the industrialized nations. Over 99% of the energy farmers expend to grow corn in the Midwest currently comes from fossil fuels. In countries where grains are grown with human and animal labor, the reduced energy requirements to farm perennials should significantly reduce the amount of labor required to produce a crop. When land does not have to be cleared and prepared for sowing every year, and nutrients and water are retained and used efficiently, and weeds are suppressed by crop competition—there is less “work” required to farm. This has consequences for mitigation and adaptation, and the future of food.
Ad astra per aspera,
Tim Crews, Chief Scientist
Hope, Rooted In Science.