Natural Systems Agriculture
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.
Natural Systems Agriculture: Solving Agriculture’s 10,000-Year-Old Problem
Established natural ecosystems feature perennials in mutually beneficial relationships known as perennial polycultures.
Those systems are self-sustaining, powered by contemporary sunlight (as opposed to ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels), and maintain multiple important processes like pest control, fertility and nutrient cycling, erosion control, drought resistance and water management, and carbon sequestration. Nature does all that if we don’t impede or overburden it, and those systems produce ample food and biomass.
But we have spent 10,000 years championing a few crops in isolation, planting them in monocultures of a single variety, breeding them to be increasingly dependent upon larger scales of industrial intervention that keep those natural processes from occurring.
The industrial agriculture we have developed and now rely upon places us in an unwinnable contest against established natural systems. In this view, nature is to be subdued or ignored. But we do so at our increasing peril, threatening the very existence of complex natural systems and the human populations that rely upon them for food.
Natural Systems Agriculture is rooted in the premise that we can work with – rather than against – nature in order to produce the food we need.
Rather than subduing or ignoring the wisdom inherent in established natural systems with short-term technological gimmicks and depleted water and mineral resources, Natural Systems Agriculture matches the principles and insights of evolutionary and ecological science with the applied skills and knowledge of agronomy to partner with and intensify the beneficial relationships within living species, communities, and ecosystems.
“Nature as Measure”
In this context, agriculture must be completely reconsidered. At The Land Institute, we seek to develop an agricultural system that uses natural systems – in preference over extractive industrial systems – as the measure of productivity. We also explore the cultural and educational dimensions of this new agriculture.
William Ruckelshaus, the first Director of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, captured a key reality when he wrote: “Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites.”
“Nature” is a broadly valuable concept. But The Land Institute’s undertaking is primarily a scientific and pragmatic one. This notion of nature as the tangible and applicable source and the most efficient, productive, and comprehensive measure of agricultural capacity is at the very core of The Land Institute’s work to develop a Natural Systems Agriculture.
We must, as Wes Jackson has pointed out, meaningfully adjust our practice of treating wilderness (in isolated cases) as sacred while treating agricultural land as profane. And we must deeply revise our thinking about our human place within the world.
Agriculture must understand and mimic sustaining natural systems in preference over extractive industrial systems if we hope to feed our growing population without further degrading or destroying those processes upon which we depend.
Our Focus Areas
Perennial Grain Crops
In our work to breed perennial crops, we focus on two basic strategies: domesticating wild perennial species that are good crop candidates, and perennializing existing annual crops
Our work in ecological intensification explores ways to productively grow these crops in diverse polyculture mixtures.
Crop Stewardship is how we get perennial grain crops onto the landscape—brought to scale, processed, prepared, and consumed—and keep them on the land.
Ecosphere Studies extends The Land Institute’s innovative work in Natural Systems Agriculture to educational and cultural transformation.
Join us by supporting this work with a perennial donation to The Land Institute.