THE PROGRESSIVE VOICE OF THE GREAT PLANES
Book Review: "Consulting the Genius of the Place" by Wes Jackson
Review by Matt Low
“Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture”
Author: Wes Jackson
Author: Wes Jackson
Even before the publication of his new book “Consulting the Genius of the Place” (Counterpoint, 2010), Wes Jackson had solidified his place among the most prominent and effective advocates of American environmental thought and practice. As director of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. (since 1976), as a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (in 1992) and as the author of such influential books as “New Roots for Agriculture” (1980) and “Becoming Native to This Place” (1994), Jackson’s career exemplifies personal success as the upshot of public service. His most recent book brings details of that career to new light, while furthering the cause to which he has devoted his life: namely, replacing the monocultural practices of modern industrial agriculture with a perennial polyculture that prioritizes sustainability, longevity and the health of both the environment and rural America.
Subtitled “An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture,” “Consulting the Genius of the Place” forgoes the narrowed focus and compressed argumentation of Jackson’s earlier writing, especially “Becoming Native to This Place,” in favor of a more meandering and loosely organized collection of autobiography, personal reflection, cut-and-dried agricultural policy, the occasional polemic against modern farming practices and a handful of fully realized solutions to the problems facing contemporary American agriculture. The most effective portions of the book tend to be the latter, as anyone committed to substantially revising the scope and intent of farming practice in America will find inspiration in Jackson’s assertion that “we built an agriculture that was at once simple and simplifying, disrupting countless subtle, ancient processes that had been reliable over millions of years. We can’t go back to the crossroads where our ancestors took that wrong turn, or to a golden age of folk agriculture that never existed. But we can now envision an agriculture in which we bring the ecological processes embodied within biodiversity to the farm, rather than forcing agriculture to relentlessly chip away wild ecosystems” (152). Jackson may lack the same fluidity and precision of prose as his friend Wendell Berry, who plays a prominent role in “Consulting the Genius of the Place,” but passages like this show that he matches Berry in conviction and sincerity. Indeed, one of the more compelling chapters of this work is the recreation of the “50-year farm bill” that Jackson and Berry presented to the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in 2009, showing that together the two constitute a formidable tandem that transcends the substantial written work each has produced. Given that this bill, and other portions of the book, present agriculture and food production as matters of national security demonstrates a savvy author familiar enough with modern-day politics to get the attention of those in power.
But readers will probably find the most interest in those sections where Jackson slows down and narrows in on localized examples where he has witnessed successful sustainable agriculture at work. Early in the book he recounts a summer spent working on the South Dakota ranch of distant relatives. Because so much of his later work is associated with the native ecology of the Great Plains and Midwest, it is of great significance that Jackson notes, “It was there that I got my first intimate engagement with a prairie landscape whose vegetative structure, or physiognomy, was determined more by its ecology than by its culture” (20). Much later in the work Jackson gives a brief account of how he settled on the part of Saline County, Kan., that would eventually become the Land Institute. Contextualized alongside the biblical story of Eden, Jackson’s reflection here includes a contemplation as to how, “as a technological creature, [he] had destroyed something whole, which is to say, holy,” through his acts of converting prairie and riparian ecosystems into a suitable place for his family to live (241, his emphasis). A noticeable vulnerability enters the work at this point, a fitting bookend to the autobiographical material that opens “Consulting the Genius of the Place.” Jackson wrangles over whether his “perceived need” matched his “real need” at the time he broke ground, but one cannot argue with the good that has since come over the last three-and-a-half decades of his work with the Land Institute.
Finally, some might find Jackson’s tone in this book to be too dire or overly pessimistic, as filled as it is with examples of soil depletion, hypoxic zones, misapplication of pesticides, overpopulation and other threats posed by an omnipresent industrialized agriculture over-reliant on fossil fuels. But pessimism implies hopelessness, an attitude that fails to characterize Jackson and his work. Like those with whom his work most closely compares—Berry certainly, but also Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, maybe even Thoreau—Jackson works hard to keep the reader’s head above water, in spite of the innumerable man-made environmental calamities we now face or will be faced with shortly. Above all else, the model for sustainable agriculture illuminated in “Consulting the Genius of the Place” demands that the reader lend a measure of both hope and faith to Jackson’s confident proclamation that “when down-powering is thrust upon the world, our infrastructure will be in place and we will be better prepared to handle it gracefully” (234). These are not the words of a prophet of doom, but one who has come to terms with his role in permanently altering Eden and now is trying his hardest to make the most of it.
The Big Idea: Perennial Grains
Published: April 2011
Annual grains feed the world, but they create problems. Perennials are thrifty. Their long roots hold on to soil, water, and fertilizer, which means less pollution.
By Robert Kunzig
Photograph by Rebecca Hale, NGM Staff
Humans made an unwitting but fateful choice 10,000 years ago as we started cultivating wild plants: We chose annuals. All the grains that feed billions of people today—wheat, rice, corn, and so on—come from annual plants, which sprout from seeds, produce new seeds, and die every year. "The whole world is mostly perennials," says USDA geneticist Edward Buckler, who studies corn at Cornell University. "So why did we domesticate annuals?" Not because annuals were better, he says, but because Neolithic farmers rapidly made them better—enlarging their seeds, for instance, by replanting the ones from thriving plants, year after year. Perennials didn't benefit from that kind of selective breeding, because they don't need to be replanted. Their natural advantage became a handicap. They became the road not taken.
Today an enthusiastic band of scientists has gone back to that fork in the road: 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.
We pay a steep price for our reliance on high yields and shallow roots, says soil scientist—and National Geographic emerging explorer—Jerry Glover of the Land Institute. Because annual root crops mostly tap into only the top foot or so of soil, that layer gets depleted, forcing farmers to rely on large amounts of fertilizers to maintain high yields. Often less than half the fertilizer in the Midwest gets taken up by crops; much of it washes into the Gulf of Mexico, where it fertilizes algae blooms that cause a vast dead zone around the mouth of the Mississippi. Annuals also promote heavy use of pesticides or tillage because they leave the ground bare much of the year. That allows weeds to invade.
Above all, leaving the ground bare after harvest and plowing it in planting season erodes the soil. No-till farming and other conservation practices have reduced the rate of soil loss in the U.S. by more than 40 percent since the 1980s, but it's still around 1.7 billion tons a year. Worldwide, one estimate put the rate of soil erosion from plowed fields at ten to a hundred times the rate of soil production. "Unless this disease is checked, the human race will wilt like any other crop," Jackson wrote 30 years ago. As growing populations force farmers in poor countries onto steeper, erodible slopes, the "disease" threatens to get worse.
Perennial grains would help with all these problems. They would keep the ground covered, reducing erosion and the need for pesticides, and their deep roots would stabilize the soil and make the grains more suitable for marginal lands. "Perennials capture water and nutrients 10 or 12 feet down in the soil, 11 months of the year," Glover says. The deep roots and ground cover would also hold on to fertilizer—reducing the cost to the farmer as well as to the environment.
The perennial wheat-wheatgrass hybrid now growing at the Land Institute can already be made into flour. Yields are too low to compete with annual wheat in Kansas—but maybe not in Nepal, which has steeper slopes and a harsher climate, and where a researcher is now testing perennial hybrids in small plots. Amber waves of perennial grain may be decades away, but the emergence of cheap DNA sequencing is allowing plant breeders to work much faster than they used to. Buckler thinks that for a tiny fraction of the billions spent annually on corn research, one could create field-testable perennial corn in as little as ten years. "I think we should take a shot at revolutionizing agriculture," he says.
The Perennial Promise
Under the Lens by Elise Hugus
In order to solve humanity’s biggest crises—hunger, malnutrition, environmental degradation, and even climate change—farmers and ecologists need to get married.
That was the message Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas, brought to Woods Hole last week.
In a room filled with local scientists and backyard farmers, one could imagine a harmonious marriage.
If only the two hadn’t gotten divorced in the first place.
Speaking at MBL’s Lillie Auditorium on Feb. 2, Dr. Jackson’s wisdom was disguised in his easy Kansas manner.
“We need a system with an ecological world view,” he said, resting his elbow on a bent knee at the front of the stage.
“We need to start where climate change began: agriculture.”
A geneticist-agronomist and author who has received a number of prestigious awards– including the MacArthur Fellowship in 1992 and the Right Livelihood Award in 2000– Dr. Jackson has dedicated his life’s work to developing perennial grains, including wheat, rice, sorghum, and prairie flowers.
Since wheat was first developed as a domestic crop in 9000 BCE, farming has meant cultivating annual monocultures, Dr. Jackson said. But while great advances in civilization were made possible by the spread of agriculture, it also led to the destruction of the environment that supported it.
Wheat was the “pulverized coal of the soil. That’s where climate change had its beginnings,” he said. “If we were to eat, nature had to be subdued or ignored.”
Recognizing that scientific discoveries—including Copernican theory, Galileo’s discoveries, and Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species—would not have been possible if humanity had remained hunter-gatherers, Dr. Jackson pointed out that these advances were based on the “extracting economy” of various European empires, especially the British empire.
Whether people are mining for coal or engineering seeds to increase crop yields, there are consequences to this world view, he said.
With soil erosion in many parts of the world exceeding natural replacement levels and fertilizer runoff creating “dead zones” in places like the Gulf of Mexico, “we’re losing the stuff we are made of to the sea,” Dr. Jackson said.
Fifty years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the ecological threat posed by pesticides, the industry has doubled in size, he added. Though fertilizers led to the “green revolution,” the energy required to produce them outpaces the amount of calories created.
If only we would learn…
Humanity is operating on a “3.45 billion-year-old imperative” that causes us to seek out carbon-based resources to sustain ourselves, Dr. Jackson told the audience.
“There was never a need to practice restraint. It has to be something learned,” he said. “If we can save our soils, we can keep alive what we’ve learned on this long journey.”
Cultivating perennial poly-cultures can solve a number of agricultural headaches, from drought, pests, and the amount of work required to plow, plant, and harvest the crops each season, he said.
In partnership with researchers in China and Sweden, Land Institute researchers around the world are working on perennial varieties of the world’s three major major grains, rice, corn, and wheat– as well as oil-producing plants like mustard and sunflowers.
Dr. Jackson acknowledged the concept he and his colleagues are developing will not be popular with seed suppliers, and fertilizer, pesticide, and oil companies.
But even without millions in corporate and government funding, The Land Institute has been able to refute the arguments often made by pro-genetic engineering types and chemical corporations.
A paper published in 2008 by Land Institute researcher Stan Cox showed that perennial crops have the potential to feed a growing, ever-hungry population without destroying nature.
In this vision, the “sustainable agriculture industry” finally ceases to be an oxymoron– and in fact, could provide the hope for greater food security across the globe.
Considering that in 2006, prices for basic grains jumped 80 % for wheat, 60% for corn, and a whopping 320% for rice, the world’s hungry need all the help they can get.
If the uprising in Egypt is at least partly due to rising food prices– in a country where people barely survive on $2 a day– it’s possible that revolutionizing agriculture could also lead to world peace.
The perennial promise
Unfurling an 18-foot poster comparing perennial wheat to its domestic sister species, Dr. Jackson pointed out that the perennial variety’s long root system can find water where the annual plant cannot.
Perennial wheat has been found to fix carbon in the soil and reduce nitrate and water losses typically incurred at each harvest.
Furthermore, its productive life span of five to 10 years means a heartier crop that can compete with weeds and resist pests, reducing the need for pesticides.
Perennial wheat strains developed by The Land Institute have only been able to produce 40 percent of the seeds of an annual variety, said Dr. Jackson, who estimated the perennial strain will require up to 50 more years of interbreeding to match–and eventually exceed– that level of productivity.
But it will likely be worth the wait. Lab tests have shown that flour made from perennial wheat has 40 percent more protein, 10 times more folate and lutein, and up to 600 percent more nutrients than traditional wheat flour.
Dr. Jackson’s books, including the 2010 Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to New Agriculture, provide plenty of food for thought on the subject of sustainable agriculture, in which biologists and backyard gardeners may find common ground.
I wonder what would be served at the wedding.
Institute of Science in Society
Science society sustainability
ISIS Press Release 26/06/08
Ending 10 000 Years of Conflict between Agriculture and Nature
Organic agriculture is not enough; we must replace annual with perennial crops.
Dr. Stan Cox
Dr. Stan Cox
Humans now directly manage 27 percent of the Earth's surface area, harvesting more than 40 percent of the planet's biological productivity for our own uses. Yet food production per person is on the decline, and agriculture worldwide is doing more than ever to worsen the global ecological crisis. Like the Hindu god Shiva, today's agriculture is both a creator and a destroyer, partly as the consequence of conscious decisions taken by farmers, agribusiness executives, government officials, and food buyers. But the productivity and ecological impact of agriculture are also inherent in the crops and cropping methods that humans have relied upon for 10 000 years.
The problem of agriculture
Since its inception, agriculture has relied on annual plants that are grown from seed every year and harvested for their seed. That requires tilling of the soil, which can be done on a small scale without causing great harm, as in small, intensively hand-managed plots or on annually flooded land along a river. But every civilization that has practised tillage on a large scale has suffered the often catastrophic consequences of soil erosion [1, 2]. Industrialization has compounded the problem through burning fossil fuels and chemical contamination.
The world's natural landscapes are covered mostly by perennial plants growing in mixed stands , w hereas more than two-thirds of global cropland is sown to monocultures of annual crops . Conversion from natural to agricultural landscapes dramatically alters ecological conditions. Across the planet, more land has been converted from perennial to annual cover since 1950 than in the previous 150 years. This recent expansion of cropland has made it more and more necessary to apply chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which disrupt natural nutrient cycles and erode biodiversity [4, 5].
Perennial plants are highly efficient and responsive micromanagers of soil, nutrients, and water. Annual crops are not; they require churning of the soil, precisely timed inputs and management, and favourable weather at just the right time. With shorter growing seasons and ephemeral, often small root systems, annual crops provide less protection against soil erosion, wasting water and nutrients, storing less carbon below ground, and are less tolerant of pests than are perennial plant communities .
Today, vast swaths of entire continents have been scoured of their perennial vegetation, leaving the soil uncovered for a good part of the year. Even when the soil is covered during the growing season and even under organic management, lightly rooted annual crops fail to manage water and nutrients the way their deeply- and densely-rooted, persistent perennial antecedents did. Agriculture's destruction of perennial root systems has wrecked entire underground ecosystems, subtracting from the soil much of what makes it soil.
Agriculture is a problem older than history. It has always depended largely on annual grass and legume species that humans domesticated between 5000 and 10 000 years ago. That domestication of annuals set in motion a somewhat ironic series of events. First, annual grain crops made civilization both possible and necessary. Much later, civilization - largely through exploitation of fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals - created conditions under which agriculture could become both extraordinarily productive and ecologically destructive. But today, it is the fruits of the very civilization made possible by agriculture - scientific knowledge, data, and techniques - that have clearly revealed to us both the necessity and the possibility of correcting the well-intentioned wrong turn our species made 10 000 years ago (Jackson, 1980).
No-till, organic, and perennial
By far the most important factor that determines the degree of soil erosion in a field is the type of vegetation , annual or perennial , that covers the land. In one field experiment encompassing 100 years of data collection, perennial crops were more than 50 times more effective than annual crops in maintaining topsoil . So-called “no-till” methods (in which annual crops are farmed without tillage) reduce soil loss but require heavy chemical inputs. No-till also performs as poorly as conventional farming in controlling percolation of nutrients and water out of the soil profile .
Global data for maize, rice, and wheat indicate that only 18 to 49 percent of nitrogen applied as fertilizer is taken up by crops; the remainder is lost to runoff, leaching, or volatilisation . That occurs with or without tillage. Nitrogen losses from annual crops may be 30 to 50 times higher than those from perennial crops . Organic farming with annual crops solves the problem of chemical contamination, but except in rare circumstances, requires as much or more tillage than conventional agriculture. And the inadequate root systems of annual species handle water and nutrients inefficiently even when crops are grown organically.
Modern societies, stuck as we are with annual crops, have little alternative but to treat grain cropping not as a source of life but as a dangerous activity against which humans and nature must be protected. Environmentally conscious researchers and farmers are making the most of the only perennial plants available to them, by growing more hay and pasture; growing perennial biofuel crops; planting more trees and grass along rivers and streams to soak up the contaminants that haemorrhage from cropland; and taking more erodible lands out of grain production altogether . It's a monumental and discouraging task made necessary because we are still dependent on annual crop plants.
We cannot go back to the crossroads where our ancestors took that wrong turn, and a return to ancient farming methods would not address the problem of annual cropping. But by taking the successes of organic farming through another stage of evolution, it may be possible to produce food while simultaneously allowing the Earth itself to manage the soil, water, and air as it did before the dawn of agriculture.
To do that, we need perennial grain crops. Humans obtain three-fourths of our total calories from grains and oilseeds. By developing perennial grains, plant breeders could help dramatically enlarge that portion of the agricultural landscape that is kept intact by diverse, dense, and deep root systems. With a few very small-scale exceptions, no perennial cereal, pulse, or oilseed crops currently exist. But through a massive, long-term plant breeding effort, that situation can be resolved [12, 13].
The missing link in crop domestication
Neolithic people gathered and ate foods from a huge range of plant species, but once they began domesticating, it was annual plants like wheat, barley and rice that they transformed. Among the world's top 20 staple food crops, the banana is the lone non-woody perennial. Perennial grain species are not to be found anywhere among the world's crop plants .
Ancient grain-gatherers apparently did eat the seed of some perennials. Anthropologists have observed traditional methods of harvesting seed from perennial grasses in Poland, Mongolia and North America . People living south of the Sahara harvested the seed of a wide range of perennial grasses . The Vikings probably cultivated perennial lymegrass before barley reached Scandinavia . Archaeologists have found charred seeds of three perennial and twelve annual species of small-grained grasses that people were consuming 23 000 years ago at a site in what is now Israel . Yet no domesticated perennial grain species were handed down to us by plant domesticators.
Perennials were unlikely to follow neolithic people back to the fertile, churned soil around their dwellings in the way annual plants did. In any such situation, they would have been overwhelmed by the weedy annuals that specialize in colonizing such unfriendly territory by growing quickly and scattering their seed before dying. Meanwhile, in undisturbed natural stands, perennial plants re-growing from well-established roots and rhizomes would have been much more vigorous than new seedlings of the same species emerging from dropped seeds. People would have felt little incentive to sow a new generation of perennials as long as plants returned from previous seasons continued to produce well.
Changes in plant traits during domestication and breeding of annual crops occur through cycles of sexual hybridization and selection. With annuals, the mechanics of food production and plant breeding are virtually identical. Through that process, Neolithic people domesticated annual plants without, at least initially, even realizing that they were doing so . But collectors of perennial seeds, harvesting year after year from the same perennial plants with no incentive to re-sow, would have had little or no genetic effect on the population.
Woody perennials became a part of the human diet, but herbaceous perennials were left behind. But today, a small number of plant breeders are beginning to domesticate perennial species and hybridize them with annual relatives, in an effort to open the door to the kinds of dramatic changes in seed production and other traits that plant breeders have achieved in annuals.
The high yields of modern crops are the result of long-term, intense selection for improved harvest index (allocation of biomass to seed rather than vegetation) and decreased intraspecific competition. On the other hand, the relatively low seed yields of wild perennial species result from natural selection in highly competitive environments . The evolutionary fitness of a wild annual plant is heavily dependent on seed production and dispersal, but the fitness of a wild perennial depends more on the survival of vegetative structures than on seed traits. Therefore, it's not surprising that many (but not all) wild perennials have low seed production.
It is predicted  that artificial selection in a properly managed agricultural environment could increase seed yield while maintaining the perennial trait. Artificial selection has the potential to generate perennial grain crops with acceptable yields, if it is applied to agronomic traits and perennial growth habit simultaneously. This is suggested by four characteristics of perennial plants that differentiate them from annual plants and provide them with extra resources that can be re-allocated to grain production :
- A longer growing season
- More conservative use of nutrients
- Generally higher biomass production both above- and below-ground
- Sustainable production on marginal lands
Current perennial-grain research
Through our research at The Land Institute, we have concluded that, unlike a field of maize or soybean, a field of perennial grain-bearing crops can provide food while at the same time protecting soils, water, and biodiversity. The genetic raw material is available, ready to be put to use. The Land Institute and a few universities and other agencies have created the foundations of breeding programmes that will, over the next decades, develop a wide array of perennial grain crops. Most current genetic and breeding effort is going into the following species and species hybrids.
Intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) is a perennial relative of wheat (Triticum aestivum). We are domesticating this species by breeding for increased seed size, seed yield, and ability to thresh freely. The main approach is to evaluate thousands of individual plants over two years, followed by a third year crossing the 5 percent of best-performing plants. We have completed one cycle and are now in a second. Experiments have shown that the first round of selection increased mean yield by about 18 percent and mean seed size by about 10 percent. Some individual families perform much better. In a separate population, four fast cycles have increased the fraction of free-threshing seed from about 8 to around 30 percent.
Wheat and triticale (X triticosecale) can be hybridized with several different perennial species. We have crossed these annual species with perennial relatives, primarily intermediate wheatgrass, and backcrossed to the annual to produce thousands of relatively fertile, large-seeded plants. In the greenhouse, a large proportion of these plants continue to live after their mature seed has been harvested, but in the field we have so far only identified about 10 plants out of thousands that were able to re -grow after harvest.
To obtain larger numbers of perennial plants, we have crossed hundreds of interspecific hybrid plants to the perennial parent, wheatgrass. We produced hundreds of hybrids, but many of them were sterile, as expected. We have since crossed the few plants that produced viable pollen with pollen-sterile plants in an effort to restore fertility. A few resulting plants have exhibited good fertility, large seed, and vigorous regrowth.
Grain sorghum, a drought-hardy feed grain in the US and a staple food in the Eastern Hemisphere , can be hybridized with the tetraploid (4 sets of chromosomes, 4 x 10 = 40) perennial species Sorghum halepense . We have produced large plant populations from hundreds of such diploid (usual 2 sets of chromosomes) x tetraploid hybrids. The better strains currently produce about 40 percent of the grain yield of their annual grain sorghum parents, at half their seed size; this is a fourfold improvement over S. halepense and represents some of the largest seed of any perennial grain in development. Being a tropical plant, sorghum survives the winter in temperate regions through the survival of rhizomes, or underground stems. Rhizome development is a complex genetic trait, dependent on 9 of sorghum's 10 chromosome pairs . Winter survival is even more complex, and harder to achieve through breeding. However, we have found no strong negative correlations between these components of the perennial trait on the one hand and grain productivity on the other.
Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoiensis) is a native prairie legume that produces relatively large harvests of protein-rich seed . It is a strong candidate for domestication as a crop. The Land Institute has assembled a large collection of seed from a wide geographical area and initiated a breeding program. Making controlled hybrids is extremely difficult technically, but methods have been developed to foster natural hybridization and identify hybrids using morphological or molecular markers. Non-shattering families – crucial to domestication – have been selected and used as initial parents. The species is a strong, widely adapted perennial, and selection criteria will include shattering resistance, synchronous maturity, seed yield, and seed size and quality.
Maximilian sunflower (H. maximiliani) and Kansas rosinseed (Silphium integrifoliu ) are native perennials related to sunflower. The Land Institute is in the process of domesticating these species as perennial oilseed crops, via methods similar to that described above for intermediate wheatgrass. There is a parallel programme for inbreeding to expose rare, valuable recessive genes. Phenotypic variation is extensive in these species. In addition to the usual traits, selection pressure is being applied to fuse the numerous small seed-heads into larger, more compact heads and eliminate seed dormancy. In the case of the large-seeded Kansas rosinseed, selection to increase seed fertility of the head is in progress.
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the highly productive annual oilseed crop, can be hybridized with several perennial species in its genus, including the diploid (2 x 17 = 34) Maximilian sunflower and two hexaploid (6 x 17 = 102) species: rigid-leaf sunflower (H. rigidu) and Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosus). Hybrids between annual and Maximilian sunflower are highly sterile, unless their chromosome numbers are doubled to produce tetraploids. The best strategy to produce perennial, partially fertile plants is to cross both annual and Maximilian sunflower to the hexaploid species to produce tetraploid plants and then inter-cross the different tetraploids. Large perennial populations have been produced in this way, and they are being subjected to selection for greater seed fertility.
There are many more groups of species that could be used to develop perennial grains .
A new organic agriculture
The perennial grain crops listed above and others are intended to be grown in a food-producing system that replicates as closely as possible the ecological functioning of the natural landscape it replaces; in The Land Institute's case, the prairie grassland. In other regions, different sets of perennial crops can be used with similar effect, to be as hardy and resilient as a forest or a savannah, or whatever ecosystem preceded human habitation in a given region. What all such future systems have in common is that they will be based on perennial plant communities with ample genetic diversity both among and within species, and t he energy that supports them will be the sunlight that falls directly on them. They must function independently of fossil energy and synthetic chemicals.
Researchers in organic and sustainable agriculture research have, out of necessity, attempted to mitigate the impact of agriculture by improving what I'll call the “software”: the application of experience, knowledge, techniques, and natural materials to existing annual crop species. But those annual species represent a kind of dysfunctional “hardware” that limits what can be achieved with even the best agricultural “software.” To open up possibilities for truly new agriculture that is sustainable in the long term, new hardware – a wide range of perennial grain crops - is needed.
Plant breeders have long had difficulty finding their role in organic and sustainable agriculture. Now we have a clear-cut, difficult, but achievable mission laid out for us: to develop perennial crops that can make agriculture truly sustainable for the first time ever . It will require a huge effort that must extend far beyond The Land Institute to agronomy, horticulture, and plant breeding departments in institutions across the globe. Plant breeders live in the future. Even in well-established crops, the pollinations we made this spring or summer won't lead to cultivars until we are well into the next decade. Breeding varieties and hybrids only for currently available farming systems becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Plant breeders in organic agriculture, indeed all plant breeders, must instead work toward goals that will be important in the longer term. And that “longer term” will by necessity include perennial grain crops.
Dr. Stan Cox is Senior Research Scientist at The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, USA .