About 10,000 years ago, our ancestors made a crucial choice that still haunts our food supply. When they planted the first farms, they chose to cultivate annual, not perennial, plants.
Those annual grain and legume crops now account for 70 per cent of our food calories. The problem: This yearly undertaking requires gross amounts of water, fertilizer and pesticides, resulting in 24 per cent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions and alarming soil loss. And one in eight people remain hungry.
Countless solutions have been offered, yet what they all miss, says Wes Jackson, who runs the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., is a fundamental problem of agriculture: our annual rite of digging up the earth. Instead, we should follow nature, he says, with ecosystems that consist of perennial plants, which regenerate year after year, their roots tunnelling deep and conserving soil while also soaking up precipitation and nutrients.
To help that process along, Mr. Jackson's institute is collaborating with scientists around the world (including a group at the University of Manitoba) to develop commercially viable, perennial versions of our staple grain and oilseed crops. Perennial yields are still much lower than annual crops, but the first potential wheat grain, Kernza, has shown promising results.
And perennials are finally starting to get wider attention: Both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations are studying the concept.
Last year's drought decimated crop yields across North American and resulted in higher prices, food shortages and an estimated $150-billion in damage in the United States alone. Is this the norm if we keep up with annual crops?
If we have drier years, hotter summers and more episodic weather, annual grains will be vulnerable. For another way to do things, look back to the 1930s. We had dust storms sweeping the Great Plains, there were droughts and the crop plants died. But the Prairies – natural and perennial – came back.
Getting farmers to move away from the current system seems like an impossible task. How do you get them to start thinking differently?
Until we have something we can give farmers, until examples of perennial crops get out there, they're not going to be thinking about it, they're going to be worrying about annual production.
It sounds like we're still stuck in the same short-term thinking as our ancestors.
The biblical Joseph was really the first secretary of agriculture. He set up for seven years of plenty and seven years of famine – a 14-year time frame. Now, farm bills are for five years.
It doesn't help that prices are low. It's only when prices spike (oil prices, for instance) that people start talking about change.
That's a human problem. But we have big reasons to care now: Greenhouse-gas emissions from land use and farming will have to be cut by a minimum of 80 per cent if we're going to reduce the loss of our natural habitats and biodiversity. We're withdrawing water at a rate faster than we can replenish it. We have a food crisis coming; supplies need to double in the next couple of decades just to meet population growth and increasing consumption. These are challenges we have not had to face before.
One possible problem with your proposal is that this type of farming won't scale up. When can you foresee the first commercial use of perennial grain crops?
Within a decade's time, there will be something. But there's a lot that has to be dealt with. This isn't a quick fix.
What would a perennial farm look like?
The farm of the future will be a perennial polyculture, in which farmers plant it and then harvest and harvest and harvest and harvest. They're not going to have to go back again and again to tear up the ground. Soil will be primarily managed through grazing and fire. That will also bring about a very different economic arrangement for the farmer: They will need less farm machinery, they will not be beholden to the seed companies and there'll be very little use of fertilizers and pesticides. The main thing will be that the reward goes to farmers and the landscape rather than the suppliers of inputs.
How many annual crops have perennial counterparts? Is that common, or will a whole new breed of seeds need to be developed?
Out of the 13 most widely grown grain and oilseed crops, 10 can be hybridized with perennial relatives.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The dirt on dirt
Dirt might not be sexy – but no soil, no food. That's why the United Nations has stated that soil erosion is one of the greatest threats to humanity.
The nutrient-rich topsoil needed to grow our food is disappearing at an alarming rate. The UN estimates that we are using it at rates up to 100 times greater than it regenerates, which is about 100 years for one millimetre of soil.
In the past 25 years, a quarter of the world's land has declined in productivity because of soil erosion.