From Salina, Kansas, The Land Institute offers a real solution to a growing problem

If you follow agriculture, you likely have noticed more and more people who don’t believe the world can be fed by a chemical-intensive, genetically modified monoculture approach. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has officially declared this fact and called on governments to shift their subsidies and research funding to small farmers and practitioners of agroecology.

The official position of Stewardculture is that by its very nature, industrial agriculture is incapable of healthfully feeding the people as diverse as this planet hosts.

Yet, the solutions to feed the world are diverse and varied, some even backed by famous billionaires. But, in all honestly, will one approach to agriculture be the right choice? Of course not.

One trend that is capturing attention and causing the large agribusiness companies to scramble is big data. Some posit that with the right data, industrial agriculture can be even more productive. But more productive at producing what?

Another agricultural solution – perennial grains – shows bright promise of being a bridge between our current monoculture system to the way mankind will feed itself in the future. Yet, the disturbing thing about this is that there isn’t much media coverage of perennial crops as an agricultural solution for feeding the anticipated 9 billion world population expected by 2050.

Trendy ideas such as vertical urban farming, hydroponics, and other creative solutions seem to be forms that have high operational costs and require significant start-up investment. However, solutions must be based in soil building and polycultures which are better suited for the smallholder rather than building a cost-intensive hydroponics tower.

Many older farmers are commonly heard to opine, God ain’t making more dirt; meaning there is a finite amount of land on which mankind should practice agriculture. And that reason alone is good enough to explore unique and creative ideas for growing food. But, given this finite growing medium, what if you could grow grains with equal yield and better nutrition than existing varieties and only have to plant them once?

Perennial crops, such as those being developed by The Land Institute, hold exactly this kind of promise. The beauty of the hybrids the researchers at The Land Institute are developing is that a farmer would not have to annually re-sow their grain crop and their farms would behave more like the natural prairie than a monoculture farm.

Imagine only having to pass over fields once to plant grain varieties that are drought and pest tolerant. Imagine reversing annual soil loss and even increasing topsoil tonnage per acre and reestablishing its microscopic life. This is the kind of idea is attractive because it is a regenerative technique that restores soil conditions closer to the way they were created to work.

When adding these benefits to the fact that farmers can deliver comparable yields to annual grains that have had billions of dollars of research behind them and thousands of years of genetic work, perennials offer an agriculture that is much friendlier to the planet and will meet the demand for food until agriculture transitions to smallholders producing actual food for local and regional communities.

Why the tremendous promise of perennial grains isn’t part of the mainstream dialog of feeding the world is beyond me. I honestly believe that adoption of this form of farming would revolutionize agriculture. This would serve as a landing from which we could launch an even more sustainable form of agriculture.

There has been some token media coverage of perennial breeding research being conducted at The Land Institute. One example is a National Geographic article in April 2011 by Robert Kunzig (read online version here). Referring to the researchers at The Land Institute, Kunzig wrote:

They’re trying to breed perennial wheat, rice, and other grains. Wes Jackson, co-founder and president of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has promoted the idea for decades. It has never had much money behind it. But plant breeders in Salina and elsewhere are now crossing modern grains with wild perennial relatives; they’re also trying to domesticate the wild plants directly. Either way the goal is crops that would tap the main advantage of perennials – the deep, dense root systems that fuel the plants’ rebirth each spring and that make them so resilient and resource efficient – without sacrificing too much of the grain yield that millennia of selection have bred into annuals.

This may sound like some far-off future and other ideas are needed to bridge today to that bright tomorrow. But, I’ve see Kernza™ wheat flour for sale and seen the result of it being used in bakeries,” he said. “Kernza wheat also is being used in brewing beer.”

What is Kernza? Nothing less than the realized dream of a perennial wheat that is already being harvested and processed into food. Kernza (technically, wheatgrass) is the trademarked wheat variety developed by The Land Institute.

It’s not a pipe dream. Perennial crops are a near-term solution to feed the world; especially when deployed in a context of sustainable agriculture that Wendell Berry simply called “good farming.”

Why hasn’t this taken the world by storm with truckloads of funding support flowing into The Land Institute or similar research organizations? Notwithstanding the bedfellows of politicians, land-grant universities and agribusiness companies; the agricultural media appears to be disinterested or baffled. Regardless of the cause of the media vacuum, the result is the same: silence during a time when news of real solutions is needed. The shame is that perennial crops are the answer to so many of industrial agriculture’s problems. But, you wouldn’t know it.

For an update on the research progress of The Land Institute, visit their website.

Dan Grubbs

Dan Grubbs, editor of Stewardculture, lives in northwest Missouri where he is implementing and managing a permaculture-style design on his 15-acre homestead. A weekly teacher of the Bible, Dan believes that an agrarian lifestyle is one in which he can answer God's calling to steward creation through regenerative techniques that attempt to mimic God's design.

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