Four years ago, I traveled out to Salina, Kansas, to visit the Land Institute and meet its founder: the prairie philosopher and agricultural visionary, Wes Jackson. Jackson is the author of numerous books and essays and is quite outspoken on the sins of modern agriculture, or to be more precise, of agriculture in general. We basically got it wrong all the way back at the beginning, he says, when we began plowing up fields for the planting of crops. Jackson has famously said that we may have done more harm with plowshares then we ever did with swords, turning the famous Bible quote on its head.
Instead, says Jackson, we should look to nature as a model. Natural fields consist primarily of perennial polyculture, which makes them far more resilient than the annual monocultures that we force from the earth with the aid of endless interventions and tons of chemicals. Also at peril is the element that Jackson calls “the foundation of any civilization” -- topsoil.
Citing “the genius of the place” where he lives, he talks about the way that hundreds of different plant species have co-evolved to form native prairie, which barely blinked when the weather turned nasty and converted the Midwestern farm belt into a dust bowl. One reason why: Perennial roots go much deeper than those of annuals, making them far more tolerant to droughts and temperature extremes. Those are characteristics that could be in high demand in the years to come.
Jackson, who holds a doctorate in genetics, has been working for close to 40 years now on the development of a man-made perennial polyculture that could mimic the synergistic quality of native prairie. Can his team find a group of plants that will work together, with the net result of some kind of edible grain? They’ll need to find perennials that will produce seed that can be used as a grain, other plants to fix nitrogen (and thus eliminate the need for fertilizer), while others might act as green mulch (eliminating the need for cultivation).
Key in all of this is the preservation of topsoil. By not turning over the soil and planting a new crop each year, the undisturbed soil will not be carried off by the wind. The Environmental Working Group estimates that heavy storms in Iowa carried off dangerous amounts of topsoil from 10 million acres in 2007. Says Jackson: “Agriculture is eroding much more than soil. It is accelerating climate change and fouling waterways. It is the single human activity most responsible for dismantling the biodiversity that makes life as we know it possible. By using industrial techniques, agriculture is racing through resources future generations will need. It is no exaggeration to say that humans are destroying their future.”
Of course, perennials as a rule don’t produce a great deal of seed, since they don’t need to replenish 100 percent of their population each year as annuals do. But the team at the Land Institute has been studying the problem and conducting experiments since 1976. Jackson told me it’s a painstaking 100-year effort to breed, cross, sample, record and keep trying new combinations based on what looks promising. Researchers are using only traditional breeding methods and no genetic modification. In some ways, the work is reminiscent of Gregor Mendel.
Jackson, who is now 79, admits yield will never be as high as with annuals, but it doesn’t have to be. For farmers, eliminating the need for plowing and cultivation, for fertilizers and pesticides will lead to higher profits even if yields are lower. When you figure out the savings in equipment cost, chemicals, fuel and seed, it’s not hard to believe. The institute's goal is 50 percent of current yield with annuals.
Progress has been slow but steady. The institute's prime candidate for a perennial grain is a descendant of an ancient intermediate wheat researchers have trademarked Kernza. The wild wheatgrass has been cross-pollinated with annual wheat to improve its yield.
Kernza has been in development for 13 years. It has many of the properties that Jackson and his team have been looking for. According to Gene Logsdon, writing for the Contrary Farmer, Kernza “is exceptionally high in some nutrients known to be important to human health and deficient in many modern diets: Omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, lutein, and betaine. It is particularly high in folate, important for preventing stroke, cancer, heart disease and infertility.” It also helps to build soil fertility.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t have enough gluten to make bread out of, and according to the folks at Civil Eats, the taste still needs some work, though it does makes some decent pancakes. On the other hand, there is more than one way to use a grain.
Now a milestone is beginning to emerge, like a first bloom on an apple tree. Patagonia Provisions is a recently-formed wing of the outdoor clothing company, famous for the sustainable principles of founder Yvon Chouinard.
Building on the company's commitment to “real foods,” Patagonia Provisions has taken an interest in Kernza. It is now growing the crop, under contract, on 90 acres at the University of Minnesota. While it hasn't yet disclosed what foods it will produce from Kernza, according to Scott Seirer, managing director at the Land Institute, the company is experimenting with the idea of making beer out of it. At the same time Henry Tarmy, of Ventura Distillers in California, is also having some grown with the notion of turning it into a “really delicious” whiskey.
Meanwhile, Lee Dehaan, the scientist at Land Institute primarily responsible for Kernza, is continuing to develop the plants, to improve their yield and to get them to hang onto the seeds longer. Wild plants tend to drop their seeds freely, for obvious reasons, while domesticated varieties have been bred to avoid this to allow for more complete harvesting. Dehaan has been working on Kernza since 2002.
The whole enterprise has been, perhaps first and foremost, a study in patience and determination. Originally estimated to take 100 years to fulfill the vision of a synergistic perennial polyculture, 40 years in, says Seirer, “we now believe we are ahead of schedule.”
Images courtesy of the Land Institute
RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org