Transforming Agriculture, Perennially
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These Kansans See A Way To Fight Climate Change By Breeding Ecofriendly Crops

Publication: KOSU NPR

Author: Brian Grimmett

Ebony Murell and a few interns meticulously sort 99 kinds of silphium. It’s a wild relative to a sunflower. And the biologists at The Land Institute — an outfit devoted to finding out how science can make farming more planet-friendly — want to unravel the plant’s secrets for tolerating bugs and diseases.

“We don’t know what all of these traits mean in terms of plant defenses,” Murell said. “Any or all of them could matter.”

The thousands of data points collected about bug resistance make up just one small part of the larger goal of developing the wild silphium into a perennial crop farmers can plant and harvest for seed oil.

Unlike annually planted crops such as wheat, corn and sorghum, perennial crops more closely mimic how a natural prairie works. Instead of planting new seed every year, farmers can plant once and expect years of harvests.

About 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of natural ecosystems comes from agriculture. But the 50 or so researchers at The Land Institute think they can show farmers how to reduce their carbon footprint.

Murell said the deep root systems of perennial agriculture mimic natural prairie. They stop erosion and rebuild the soil.

It’s all about the roots

All plants are natural carbon scrubbers. They take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into leaves and flowers and grain. But it’s the roots that really matter. They take the carbon from the air and turn it into dirt.

The bigger and deeper the roots, the more carbon is sequestered.

So diets based on perennial grains would tread more lightly on the earth than the plant-harvest-plant pattern that defines most farming.

“This is the best opportunity we have to save the soils and still produce food,” said Tiffany Durr, the Land Institute’s greenhouse manager.

Some Land Institute projects attempt to domesticate wild perennial plants, like with silphium. But it’s also working on perennializing existing annual crops such as wheat and sorghum — all through selective breeding.

It’s a daunting task.

The Land Institute has been working on developing perennial grains since 1976. So far, none of its work is widely used among farmers.

Durr gets the skepticism.

“We’re hippieville out here doing something, they don’t know what,” she said. “People didn’t understand that there was real science going on — big hope, grounded in real science.”

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