Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

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Closing the Gap Between Grasslands and Grain Agriculture

Author: Crews, Timothy E.

Publication: Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, Volume 26, Issue 3

Grasslands are among the biomes that have been most extensively degraded or eliminated by the expansion of agriculture. Grasslands are also threatened by development, poor management, and climate change. This expansion of agriculture has prompted intense concern amongst conservation biologists, as grasslands provide critical habitat for thousands of wild plant and animal species. Less attention has been focused on the non-biodiversity ecosystem services that intact natural grasslands provide. Services such as soil protection, carbon sequestration, water purification are essentially taken for granted when ecosystems provide them for free. In contrast, row crop agriculture has received growing recognition as a problematic source of ecosystem disservices. As will be discussed in this article, soil erosion, nutrient leakage, weed establishment, loss of soil organic matter, agrochemical and fossil fuel dependence are all disservices that occur as a consequence of converting grasslands to annual, monoculture croplands. There now exists the opportunity to develop agroecosystems that function more like natural grasslands and thus are expected to recapture many of the ecosystem services that grasslands originally provided. The two areas of research deemed most critical to make this transition to a grassland-like agriculture are the breeding of perennial grain crops, and the management of higher diversity cropping arrangements.

[This article will] describe what ecologists perceive as the most important ecosystem services that were sustained by diverse, native grasslands. It will then explain how these services turned into disservices with the conversion of grass to croplands, and finally how a new agriculture, informed by the structure and function of the original native grasslands has the potential to resolve the tradeoff between the provision of food and other critical ecosystem services.

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