AS SOMEONE WHO has spent much of his life working in agriculture, I think a lot about the costs and benefits of various methods of food production. Our food system is currently based on large-scale industrial agriculture. While this system does provide food for many people, it has significant flaws.
Many issues arise from the chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used on the crops, but one of the most fundamental challenges with agriculture is simply that the majority of crops we consume are cultivated as annual crops — those that complete their life cycle in a single year and must be replanted the following season.
Annual crops present a problem in that the soil in which they are grown is necessarily barren for a portion of the year. In most industrialized farming practices, an annual crop is grown from spring until late summer or fall, at which point it is harvested and tilled into the soil. This frequent working of the soil releases large amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere and increases the risk of erosion.
Erosion is another large-scale problem. Fall and winter seasons, when soil is bare, often bring significant precipitation to regions with arable land. The resulting erosion has many negative consequences, from silting up rivers to depleting nutrient-rich topsoil from agricultural lands.
The vast majority of food we eat comes from annual crops, primarily from grains such as corn, rice and wheat. However, there are species of plants closely related to those crops with a perennial life cycle. A perennial crop is one that remains productive for at least two years, and often much longer.
What if we could produce food from sources similar to corn, wheat and other staples, but from plants that grow as perennial crops?
Perennial crops have distinct ecological advantages: They prevent soil erosion, reduce fossil fuel use, build a healthy soil ecosystem and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. In many ways, the transition to perennial crops would allow us to create farms that function more like natural ecosystems.
While an agricultural transition to perennial cropping systems might not be the hottest topic on Twitter right now, an organization called The Land Institute is working to make it a reality.
The Land Institute has been crossbreeding annual crops such as wheat and sorghum with their wild, perennial relatives. They hope to eventually develop marketable perennial varieties of staple food crops. They also have developed a viable grain called Kernza, by intensively breeding a perennial plant, intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium), for characteristics desirable in a food crop.
By selecting the best seeds from each generation of crop, researchers have been increasing the yield from each plant, seed size and the ability to easily thresh the grain. It’s the time-honored approach to developing new and better food crops, without resorting to genetic modification or other questionable practices. Kernza has recently made an appearance in the marketplace with some forward-thinking bakeries and breweries, including Patagonia, whose Long-Root Ale actually can be found in stores and pubs in Seattle.
While there is still much work to do in the development of a more resilient and sustainable food system, I hope we all can support innovative approaches such as perennial cropping systems. If you want to see one of these crops in person, make a stop at Cascadian Farm along Highway 20 on your next trip to the North Cascades. Cascadian began growing Kernza at the farm last year and has plans to expand production. So if you stop by this summer, take the opportunity to stand on the edge of the Kernza field, slurping down a milkshake and nodding your head in approval as a more sustainable food system begins to take shape before your eyes.