Secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing and the key to the planet’s future
Read a selection from the new article in The Guardian by author George Monbiot that features the work of The Land Institute:
But if we can discover how to mediate and enhance the relationship between crop plants and bacteria and fungi in a wide range of soils and climates, it should be possible to raise yields while reducing inputs. Our growing understanding of soil ecology could catalyse a greener revolution.
I believe we could combine this approach with another suite of innovations, by a non-profit organisation in Salina, Kansas, called the Land Institute. It’s seeking to develop perennial grain crops to replace the annual plants from which we obtain the great majority of our food. Annuals are plants that die after a single growing season. Perennials survive from one year to the next.
Large areas dominated by annuals are rare in nature. They tend to colonise ground in the wake of catastrophe: a fire, flood, landslide or volcanic eruption that exposes bare rock or soil. In cultivating annuals, we must keep the land in a catastrophic state. If we grew perennial grain crops, we would be less reliant on smashing living systems apart to produce our food.
For 40 years, the Land Institute has been scouring the world for perennial species that could replace the annuals we grow. Already, working with Fengyi Hu and his team at Yunnan University in China, it has developed a perennial rice with yields that match, and in some cases exceed, those of modern annual breeds. Farmers are queueing up for seed. While annual rice farming can cause devastating erosion, the long roots of the perennial varieties bind and protect the soil. Some perennial rice crops have now been harvested six times without replanting.
Perennials are their own green manures. The longer they grow, the stronger their relationships with microbes that fix nitrogen from the air and release other minerals. One estimate suggests that perennial systems hold five times as much of the water that falls on the ground as annual crops do.
The Land Institute is developing promising lines of perennial wheat, oil crops and other grains. The deep roots and tough structures of perennial plants could help them to withstand climate chaos. The perennial sunflowers the institute is breeding have sailed through two severe droughts, one of which entirely destroyed the annual sunflowers grown alongside them.