Zero: The Food System Needs a Rethink
The Land Institute’s work on perennial grains was recently featured in an interview the George Monbiot on the Bloomberg News podcast Zero with Akshat Rathi.
“Agriculture is the worst thing we’ve ever done to the planet,” environmental journalist and campaigner George Monbiot.
“So this is, I think, a really exciting way forward here. The great majority of our grain crops come from annual plants, in other words plants which live and die within one year. Large areas covered by annual plants are quite rare in nature. And they generally only occur in the wake of a disaster. So where a landslide, or a fire, or a volcanic eruption clears the ground. And the annual plants are specialists in colonizing bare ground, so they’ll quickly colonize it, they’ll reproduce very fast, and dominate for a couple of years. And then the longer-lasting plants are perennials, which live more than one year. They then come in and swallow up that space and push the annuals out. So almost all our green crops are annual. And that means that to grow them, we need to create a disaster every year, we need to clear the land and we do it either by plowing or by spraying. And then we carry on spraying to kill the competition and to kill the pests which might eat these very tender little shoots which are coming up, and then we have to splash on the fertilizer and use loads of water and really pamper them to get them going. And it’s a catastrophic system.”
“For the past 100 years or so, some scientists have had the dream of replacing these annual crops with perennial crops because they see the enormous difference they can make in terms of environmental damage, but also potentially food security. And finally, at last, that dream has been realized, driven primarily by this group called The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. One of the crops has gone all the way now and it’s fully commercialized, and it’s a variety of rice, which they have developed with Yunnan University in southern China. Already, there’s many thousands of hectares of this rice being grown. In some cases, it’s been harvested for six harvests continuously and is still producing the same yields as annual rice produces. And the farmers are desperate for it a) because there’s much less soil erosion involved, you don’t have to plow every year, I mean, eventually, you’ll have to replace the crops but after several years, rather than every year, and secondly, that they’re desperately short of labor, because a lot of the young people have moved to the cities. And of course, you don’t have to plant every year. So I’ve eaten this rice, it’s just the same as any other short grain rice, I really could not tell the difference. And then they’re developing a whole series of other grain crops now, types of wheat or related species to wheat, barley, sorghum, sunflower, beans, peas, lentils. Not all of them have gone very far down the line. Some of them are progressing faster than others. But they’re tremendously exciting, not just because you create less environmental damage by growing them, but also because they appear to be more resilient to environmental crises. So to give you an example, the Land Institute is developing this very promising perennial sunflower, and it’s been growing its blocks of perennial sunflowers alongside blocks of annual sunflowers. In one year, it was hit by a major drought that completely wiped out the annual sunflowers. The perennials just sailed through. And the reason for that is their roots are down deeper, their structures above ground are tougher and more robust. And yeah, they just shrugged the drought off.”