Just beyond Wes Jackson’s office at The Land Institute, a 370-acre research farm in Salina, Kansas, stretch remnants of the prairie. Unlike the farmland that has gradually eaten away at it, America’s native prairie requires no pesticides, no plowing, no irrigation, no oil or gas. It runs entirely on sunlight, rain, snow, air and minerals from the soil, all the while producing food and building fertility. And it has been doing so for thousands of years. On the wild prairie many species of plants grow side by side, some of them legumes that draw nitrogen from the air, 80 percent of them perennials with deep roots that hold the soil in place, conserve water and make efficient use of nutrients. This diversity provides natural resistance to pests and diseases, as well as rich habitat for wildlife. The prairie, Jackson believes, is a model that could revolutionize how we grow grains.
This spring, across hundreds of millions of acres that were once prairie, American farmers are plowing their fields and planting the grain crops—primarily wheat and corn—that we and much of the rest of the world will be eating in months to come. The scale of this planting has increased dramatically in recent decades, and so has the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers. But otherwise we grow our grains much as our ancestors have been growing them for thousands of years.
A number of scientists now believe that if we are to grow food sustainably for a burgeoning population we must radically change how we farm. Chief among those visionaries is Jackson—plant geneticist, MacArthur Fellow and president of The Land Institute.
“If we want to create a sustainable agriculture,” says Jackson, “then out here on the Great Plains we need to study the prairie, and what we learn is that nature favors mixtures of perennial plants.” The mission of the Institute is to find an ecological solution to the problems caused by America’s increasing dedication to vast monoculture, a sustainable approach to growing grains that Jackson calls “perennial polyculture.” What’s wrong with our conventional method of agriculture, according to Jackson, is that it relies on annual crops grown one species to a field. Anyone who flies across the Midwest has seen vast rectangles planted in corn or soybeans, and out on the Great Plains enormous circles of irrigated wheat or oats. To grow annual crops, farmers till the soil each spring, exposing it to erosion by water and wind. To protect these single-species plantings from insects and disease, most American farmers spray their fields with herbicides and pesticides, and to replace the natural fertility destroyed by pesticides and erosion they apply fertilizers made from natural gas. The runoff then pollutes rivers and feeds excess nitrogen and phosphorus into coastal waters, creating oxygen-starved regions where no fish can survive, including a dead zone the size of New Jersey at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
“We could get by with annual monoculture so long as the population was relatively small,” Jackson explains. “But now with nearly 7 billion mouths to feed, oil and fresh water becoming scarce, and our climate unsettled by greenhouse gases, we need to farm in a new way.”
Since Jackson founded it in 1976, The Land Institute has focused on domesticating certain wild perennials, such as Illinois bundleflower, a source of protein-rich seed, and on turning certain annual grains, such as wheat and sunflower, into perennials by hybridizing them with their wild relatives. This research has helped to inspire kindred efforts around the world with grains ranging from rice and maize to millet and barley.
It’s too early to know how productive these perennial grains will be: this radical new agriculture is still in its early stages. Jackson estimates that wheat—the most widely planted grain on Earth—might be ready in a perennial form in eight or ten years. Developing perennial varieties of sorghum, sunflowers, maize, rice and other grains may take 25 years, or even longer.
Now in his seventies, Jackson is undaunted. “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime,” he says, “you’re not thinking big enough.” He admits, “The risky thing is to do nothing, to keep going on the way we’ve been going. The smart thing is to envision a better way, nature’s way, and strive to follow it.”
-Scott Russell Sanders won the 2009 Mark Twain Award for literature and has been nominated for a Pulitzer. His A Conservationist Manifesto will be published this month by Indiana University Press.