Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the Land Institute, an experimental farm just outside of Salina, Kansas that is truly pushing the definition of sustainable agriculture back to its roots. I spent a day there chatting with founder, farmer, author, and visionary, Wes Jackson, who perhaps should be called an agricultural revolutionary for the way that he challenges the system that forms the basis of our food supply, our civilization and our worldview–till farming of monoculture crops.
Jackson says that when the first farmers started plowing up the earth to plant seeds ten thousand years ago, they opened up a split- between man’s cleverness and nature’s wisdom- that has been widening ever since, with consequences that we are only now beginning to appreciate.
He tells us that everything we ever wanted to know about sustainability is out there in nature, as long as we don’t destroy it before we have a chance to learn from it. He cites the native American prairie as an example of “the genius of the place,” to borrow a phrase from the title of his most recent book, which is subtitled, “An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture.”
Native prairie, which Jackson, a geneticist with a PhD from North Carolina State, characterizes as an herbaceous, perennial, vegetative polyculture, has evolved over many thousands of years to become robust enough to survive the frigid, icy winters and the blistering, dry summers of the Midwestern plains states as well as whatever insect and plant pests that environment can throw at it, with minimal losses. With well over 200 plant species that have co-evolved to provide for each other symbiotically, most of which have very deep root systems that extend 25 to 30 feet below the surface, it’s no surprise that it easily survived the Dust Bowl drought years that so completely devastated the shallow rooted, herbaceous, annual, vegetative monocultures of corn and wheat that the American farmers of the day had planted and staked their livelihoods on, after plowing up the prairie.
Not so fast, says Jackson. In our haste to turn our environment into a blank slate, we are destroying priceless information that could take countless generations to replicate.
Jackson does not shy away from making bold pronouncements, such as, “the plowshare may well have destroyed more options for future generations than the sword.”
He is talking about the two natural resources that no society can exist without: fertile topsoil and genetic diversity. The dual approaches of till farming and monoculture planting, even when practiced carefully, have squandered both, leading to the demise of countless earlier civilizations.
Many people have become aware in recent years of the fragility of our dependence on non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and clean, available drinking water. Far fewer in our mostly urban society realize that fertile topsoil is also non-renewable. Yes, water can be purified and soil fertility can be regenerated, but if the rate of regeneration is substantially less than the rate of consumption, then that resource needs to be considered non-renewable, at least to that extent. But while fossil fuels can and hopefully will be replaced by renewable energy sources, there really is no replacement for soil.
Depleted soils can be pumped up with petro-chemicals, but given the resulting energy deficit, this is not sustainable. Nor are the cultivation methods in which a typical acre of farmland gives up more bushels of topsoil every year than it yields in grain.
But Jackson is not just another bearer of bad news. He and his colleagues at the Land Institute have a solution that they have been working on for 35 years. Following nature’s example, combined with their own knowledge of classical genetics, (breeding, not gene-splicing) scientists at the Land Institute have been developing a number of perennial grains that can be raised in a robust polyculture to provide a reasonable yield without tilling, annual re-seeding, nitrogen fertilizers or chemicals. The diversity provides nourishment (some of the plants are nitrogen fixing) and protection against pests, while the deep-rooted nature of the perennials provides more nutrition, and drought resistance, while eliminating the need for plowing or annual reseeding.
They said at the outset that this would be a 100 year effort. It takes a long time to evolve the required characteristics without introducing rogue Frankenplants. Thirty-five years down that road they have made substantial progress. Four plants have been developed that can be grown together in this manner with considerable benefit. These include Kernza (perennial wheat), perennial sunflowers, Illinois bundleflower (a perennial nitrogen-fixing legume similar to soybean), and sorghum (pictured above).
Lots more work still needs to be done to increase the yields, but once these crops have reached their target levels (better than 50% of current petro-intensive yields), small farmers will find them far more economical to grow. Why? Even if yields can’t match those of conventional methods, farmers will save money without all the chemical dependencies, heavy equipment and annual seed purchases that have bankrupted so many family farmers. Consider these numbers as one example of why things need to change: in the past 50 years, despite the fact that the usage of pesticides has increased nearly ten-fold (to 125 million pounds annually), insect damage has still doubled despite the tons of resulting pollution. So, who exactly is benefiting from this? You guessed it– corporate agribusiness.
I believe that what the Land Institute is doing represents the correct paradigm. Now, how do we apply the same kind of thinking, looking to discovery as well as invention, to apply the guidance of nature’s model to other facets of modern life that need to become more sustainable?
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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