Transforming Agriculture, Perennially
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Frequently Asked Questions

The Land Institute is breeding new perennial grain and seed crops adapted to ecologically intensified polycultures that mimic natural systems. We call this Natural Systems Agriculture. Our goal is to develop an agricultural system that can produce ample food, reduce or eliminate impacts from the disruptions and dependencies of industrial agriculture, and inform cultural change through education.

Learn more about The Land Institute and our work below with frequently asked questions.

 

If you have additional questions about our work, email us at info@landinstitute.org.

What is the difference between ‘annual’ and ‘perennial’ crops?

A perennial plant is a plant that lives more than two years. ‘Perennial’ is often used to differentiate a plant from shorter-lived annuals plants that complete their life cycle within one growing season, and biennials, plants that bloom in their second year and then die.

To read more about why The Land Institute is breeding perennial grain crops, visit Perennial crops 

What is the difference between a ‘polyculture’ and a ‘monoculture’?

Polyculture is a form of agriculture in which more than one species is grown at the same time and place in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems. Polyculture is the opposite of monoculture, in which only one plant species is cultivated.

Perennial polycultures offer high levels of ecological intensification in agriculture. This contrasts with chemical-based input intensification responsible for increased yields in conventional agriculture over the last century.

To read more visit Soil and intercrop ecology 

Can we expect perennial grain crops to have as high of yields as annual grains?

Yes, in time. With continued development, perennial grains will have yields comparable to those of current annual grain crops.

The exciting news is that modern breeding and genetic techniques are allowing the development of new crops to occur at an accelerated pace. Therefore, within decades we expect that several perennial grain crops with yields on par with annual grains will be achieved.

In fact, the most advanced of these new crops, perennial rice, has already provided yields similar to annual rice.

Different annual grain crops produce a wide range of yields. Similarly, new perennial grain crops are expected to be diverse in the yields they will produce. Although we cannot forecast the yield any single crop will achieve someday, we see no theoretical barrier to perennial grains with yields sufficient to meet human food needs and provide the economic returns necessary for farms and communities to flourish.

Will new machinery be necessary to harvest crops grown in polycultures?

The answer is that it may be necessary in some cases, but definitely not all.

For example, if two crops mature and produce seed stalks at sufficiently different times, say early and late summer, each species could at least theoretically be harvested independently without damaging the other.  If two or more species mature at the same time, it may be possible to harvest seed from multiple species using a simple or modified combine, and then employ a post-harvest seed sorting technology involving sieves, seed mass, seed shape, or even color.

The greatest challenge to developing a harvestable polyculture most likely lies in plant breeding more so than mechanical engineering. Breeding multiple species that mature at the same time across wide environmental gradients or mature at slightly different times but can hold onto seed (not shatter) while waiting for companion species to finish, is a huge challenge.

We are confident that if we can get the agroecology right by developing polycultures that perform well with respect to light, nutrient and water requirements, as well as seed or forage maturation times, then the design of harvesting equipment and/or post-harvest sorting will be straightforward.

I have some land available. Would The Land Institute like to use it for test plots?

It depends! Things to consider are location, soil type, proximity to research facility, etc. Please reach out to us at info@landinstitute.org – and we’d be happy to discuss more.

I want to restore my land to native prairie. What do I do?

The Land Institute’s focus is developing perennial grains. While we look to the prairie for inspiration, our research focus is not on restoring native prairies. We suggest you contact your county extension office to find out what native plants grow best in your soil and local climate. They should also be able to provide connections to organizations and seed suppliers in your area who can advise you directly.

What are your thoughts on vertical farming?

The original conception of “vertical farming,” which was popularized starting around 2009, included a wide range of crops growing on all floors of tall glass-walled buildings. The main impracticality of this system is the huge energy requirements for supplemental lighting and climate control and the infrastructure required to grow crops.

Greens and herbs are the only types of food that can be raised profitably under such conditions because they are very compact, consist of 90% water, and therefore can be productive under much dimmer light than crops that produce fruits, grains, or tubers (e.g., tomatoes, wheat, or potatoes). Growing even leafy greens under artificial lighting with year-round temperature control requires high energy input, while supporting, watering, and feeding them creates large requirements for industrial materials.

Meanwhile, the crops that make up the bulk of the human diet, including grains, pulses (beans, peas, lentils, etc.), oilseeds, fruits, and vegetables (including greens), can be and are raised with benefit of the soil, rain, and free sunlight—inputs that must be supplied industrially to plants growing indoors. The perennial crops and systems we are developing at The Land Institute will do likewise and will also support healthy ecosystems and prevent soil degradation.

What are your thoughts on biofuels?

While we urge the elimination of fossil fuels, we oppose replacing them with biofuels for road transportation. The current dominant biofuel, grain ethanol, requires almost as much energy to produce as it delivers; biodiesel is only a little better, and both biofuels cause the degradation of many millions of acres of land through the raising of annual grain crops. Extensive production of “cellulosic” biofuel produced from plant vegetation rather than grain would require either dedicating many millions of acres of land to production of fuel rather than food, fiber, or wood products or removing crop residues from vast landscapes after grain harvest, further reducing soil organic matter.

Perennial grain crops might offer a compromise, allowing a grain harvest for food followed by a harvest of the stems and leaves left behind for cellulosic fuel production. In this case, the crops’ investment of carbon in deep, dense perennial root systems would ensure that soil organic matter is maintained or increased. However, per acre, a perennial grain field will produce much less biomass for fuel than a dedicated bioenergy would; furthermore, the grain field’s biomass is likely to have higher value as feed for ruminant animals.

What are your thoughts on no-till farming?

We embrace reduced tillage or no-till farming since it represents a significant step towards saving the soil resource. It is common to lose two orders of magnitude (>100X) more soil than is gained through soil forming processes under conventional tillage, whereas no-till tends to lose only one order of magnitude (10X) more soil than the rate of soil formation.  When no-till farmers include cover crops to protect the soil and add biological nitrogen fixation, the rate of erosion drops further.

On the down side, no-till almost universally relies on the application of at least some chemical herbicides to control weeds. Extensive and persistent use of herbicides very predictably results in the evolution of weeds that are resistant to chemical control. In addition, most herbicides carry some risk to the health of humans and other animals.

No-till agriculture typically involves growing annual species which invest far less carbon belowground, and thus cannot achieve the level of soil organic matter as perennials, nor the biological and physical soil attributes that the belowground investment in carbon helps achieve.

Are your perennial crops grown organically?

We expect that perennial grain crops will fit into many of the diverse agricultural systems around the world, including systems that are labeled organic, biodynamic, regenerative, sustainable, local, biodiverse, restorative, and conventional.

Perennial grains have a unique capacity to offer robust sustainability benefits to nearly any cropping system, and we anticipate a day when farms and landscapes of all types will benefit from perennial grains. In our work at The Land Institute we aim to foster the use of perennial grains in systems where the positive impacts will be the greatest.

How does perennial agriculture combat climate issues?

Not only do the extensive root systems of perennial crops protect soil from erosion and improve soil structure, but they can also contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation via increased ecosystem nutrient retention, carbon sequestration, water infiltration, and uptake efficiency. For example, the roots of Kernza® perennial grain can reach over 10 feet underground and are a net sink for atmospheric carbon. Research is showing that perennial grains like Kernza® are one of the most robust and effective solutions known to sequester carbon on our productive lands.

Additionally, preliminary work suggests that intercropping perennial cereals with legumes for nitrogen fertility can substantially reduce emissions of nitrous oxide from agricultural soils. Our researchers believe that by combining perenniality and diversity in grain agriculture, levels of ecological intensification that were previously unachievable will effectively address many problems inherent in annual agriculture—including severe pest outbreaks, soil erosion, nutrient leakage, soil organic matter loss, and greenhouse gas emissions from farm equipment and inputs, especially nitrogen fertilizers.

What is The Land Institute’s stance on CRISPR technology? Are any of your crops GMOs?

To develop perennial grain crops, The Land Institute uses cross-pollination and selective breeding including genomic selection. None of the perennial grain crops in development at The Land Institute are GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Selective breeding is a powerful method for improving strains of livestock and crops that harnesses nature’s time-tested method of sexual reproduction followed by rigorous evaluation of the offspring. We use DNA fingerprinting and similar techniques to inform and streamline our selection process.

We are working with colleagues who are experimenting with gene editing to identify genetic controls of certain traits in laboratory settings.  Gene editing may play a role in the future in accelerating the development of perennial crops, but today no genetic engineering methodologies are being applied to breeding efforts.

How is The Land Institute funded?

The Land Institute is an IRS-designated 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization and is funded by public donations from individuals (40%), grants (50%) and corporations/partnerships (10%).

To learn more visit  Join Us

Can I get someone from The Land Institute to speak at my conference, school, event, etc.?

The Land Institute is eager to share our vision and knowledge as widely as possible, but having a small team, sometimes we do not have the bandwidth to address all opportunities. Please send your inquiry to info@landinstitute.org with information on the date/time, topic, audience, and any other information that might help us find an appropriate speaker. We will reach out to our team and see if the appropriate person is available. Please give us two weeks or more of lead time for the best chance at being able to schedule something.

I would like to use some of your images for my publication – who do I talk to and what is the process?

We are happy to accommodate media requests. Please contact Amanda at wagner@landinstitute.org with details about your request.

Is Kernza [flour, grain, products] available commercially to the public?

Yes,! You can find a list of products, producers and locations here

I want to grow Kernza® - how do I get seed or learn more about it for my farm?

Right now seed is limited and only registered Kernza® Growers are provided with access to seed sources. All Kernza® seed sources require a signed license agreement prior to the sale of seed. You can apply to become a registered Kernza® grower here. If you are approved, we will provide you with a trademark license to sign.

Approval for becoming a Kernza® grower is based on your geographic location, experience with forage grass seed or small grains, and the resources available to you to manage Kernza®.

Obtaining Seed

Can I get seeds for your other crop programs?

At this time, each of our crops is in a different phase of development and Kernza® is the only seed available for commercial use. If you are interested in becoming engaged in the research leading to commercial viability for other crops, our civic science program offers opportunities to contribute.

What is “Civic Science” and how do I sign up?

In The Land Institute’s civic science communities, people in many locations collaborate to learn together as they each grow, observe, care for, and study perennial grain crops. We’re excited to be offering more civic science opportunities in the near future. To ensure that you’re informed about when applications for new projects are open, sign up on our Civic Science Interest Form. 

Each experiment is designed differently, meaning that participants may be selected based upon different factors. For example, some participants will be selected based on their geographic region where others may be selected based on the size of their plot.

Do I need to have a space to grow a plant to be involved in civic science?

Whether you’re a backyard gardener or farmer, you can be engaged in our civic science work on various scales. These scales range from: individual to plot to field scale. If you are interested in an educational demonstration of a crop, you can direct that inquiry to our civic science program.

Additionally, civic science projects include community learning settings, such as community gardens. Make sure to indicate on your interest form that you’re applying as a group for the civic science project. If you are an artist or a teacher, civic science is an opportunity for you to incorporate perennial plants into your installations and curriculum as well.

If you’d like to engage in this work in other ways, our Kernza citizen science project is a way to engage with perennial crops from your kitchen. In the future we are also anticipating civic science projects within food science.

Where can I find nutritional information on Kernza® and your other crop programs?

Nutritional profiles have been determined by private entities, The University of Minnesota, and The Land Institute. While this information has not been published in a journal, the most recent data has been put into a bulletin by AURI and can be found here. In general, vitamin, mineral, and amino acid profiles are somewhat similar to wheat, with only a few striking differences.

What is the difference between perennial wheat and Kernza®?

Kernza® is the tradename of Thinopyrum intermedium (intermediate wheatgrass). At The Land Institute, we have worked to domesticate this wild crop using traditional breeding techniques to make selections for things like larger seed size, higher yield, reduced shattering, and uniform ripening.

Perennial wheat is a separate program which aims to perennialize an annual crop, wheat, by making wide crosses with perennial cousins (intermediate wheatgrass, in this case). This wide hybridization intends to make interspecific crosses which maintain the qualities of wheat that are important for humans (large grain size, high yield, etc.) but to add perennial characteristics to that crop (ability to go dormant and resprout year after year).

Does The Land Institute make money from selling and licensing Kernza®?

The Land Institute administers the trademark on behalf of the Kernza® community. Annual fees are required from growers, distributors, and food manufacturers who use the trademark. The revenue from these fees is nominal and is used to cover the cost of administrating the  trademark and/or to support on-going research.

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