Science

Pollination Researcher David Van Tassel hand pollinates sunflowers in a breeding plot at The Land Institute.

Researcher David Van Tassel hand pollinates sunflowers.

There’s a good reason the world’s grain comes from annual plants, grown in monocultures, boosted by chemical and energy inputs that cause widespread damage: there are no good alternatives. Yet.

We are breeding perennial grains, and discovering the science that will make it possible to grow them in polycultures – mixtures that enjoy the benefits of the complex ecosystems found in the prairie. This promises crops that don’t require pesticides to survive or fertilizer to thrive, and can be maintained with minimal energy inputs.

This is harder than it sounds. In the past 2,000 years, humans have domesticated only a handful of wild plants to become crops. The Land Institute has been thinking about this problem for nearly 40 years, actively developing perennial grains for the past 10, and expects it will be at least a decade before the first crops are field-ready.

We are based in Salina, Kansas, but collaborate with researchers around the country and internationally. Our breeding program is focused on perennializing wheat, and domesticating perennial intermediate wheatgrass (which we have named Kernza™), several species of sunflower, and sorghum.

Our agroecology program is exploring the science behind complex ecosystems – how nitrogen and other essential elements are managed, for instance, and how various species compete or cooperate with others.

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