Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

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Bill Vitek: In Pursuit of Better Agriculture (and a Better Society)

Publication: MerionWest

Author: Olivia Malloy

On December 16th, Olivia Malloy was joined by Bill Vitek for a conversation about his work with perennial agriculture. Among his many other roles, Mr. Vitek, a philosopher, educator, and scholar, is the editor of New Perennials Publishing. New Perennials Publishing recently released The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field, a collection of works that emphasizes the importance of perennial agriculture in a larger societal context. Mr. Vitek shares both the finer details of the industry and the broader implications of our collective disconnect from how farming is practiced.

Let’s start with some context. Can you briefly explain the idea of perennials and the current state of the agriculture industry? 

Sure, let’s do a little background. Ten or 12 thousand years ago—so, we have to go way back—humans around the globe, for reasons we don’t really understand, started to experiment with growing their own food rather than hunting and gathering. They didn’t know it, but the plants they selected were annual plants. The ones that emerged generations later are the ones we still primarily consume today: wheat, corn, and rice. Those annual plants require a certain kind of human activity—clearing land every year, keeping weeds out because these plants have to come up from seeds, So, annual plants have fed us for ten or 12 thousand years. They’ve also required an enormous amount of human labor and, now, fossil energy. They actually encourage weed growth, so there is a lot of energy put into weeding. They’ve done a lot of damage to the climate and have been a major contributor to species extinction.

About 40 years ago, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas asked this radical question: Why can’t we have perennial grains? Since grains make up about 65% of worldwide calories, why not develop perennial versions? And the answer is that it’s complicated, and it’s hard, and it’s probably not going to work—that’s what he was told. 40 years later, he and a team of scientists have proved the naysayers wrong. Now, around the world, there are about 60 research organizations working on the development of not only perennial grains but of perennial legumes and oilseeds. Perennial plants last more than one season. Also, they put roots deep into the ground, come up earlier, and keep the weeds away.

So, where are we now? Well, there is a perennial wheatgrass called Kernza that is now being commercialized by lots of folks. It was developed at the Land Institute, but others now are developing varieties. Chinese scientists have created a perennial patty rice, which is in production. So, it has started. It takes a long time to ramp these up and to commercialize them, but I would say that the proof of concept has been established. Now, it’s a matter of developing varieties, encouraging farmers to use them, and creating an infrastructure that would allow this to happen.

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