Food from the prairie
A few weeks ago at the annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Can. — a celebration, essentially, of true sustainability — I sat down with Wes Jackson to drink rich beer and eat delicious, chewy bread made from the perennial grain Kernza. The Kernza we ate was cultivated at the Land Institute, the festival’s sponsor and the organization Jackson founded here 37 years ago.
At 77, Jackson is a big man with big ideas. Clearly, he was back then as well, when he became determined to change the face of agriculture from being dependent upon annual monoculture (that is, planting a new crop of a single plant each year) to one that includes perennial polyculture, with fields containing varieties of mutually complementary species, planted once, harvested seasonally but remaining in place for years.
Jackson has a biblical way of speaking: “The plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword,” he says. “But soil is more important than oil, and just as nonrenewable.” Soil loss is one of the biggest hidden costs of industrial agriculture — and it’s created at literally a glacial pace, maybe a quarter-inch per century. The increasingly popular no-till style of agriculture reduces soil loss but increases the need for herbicides. It’s a short-term solution, requiring that we poison the soil to save it.
Annual monoculture like that practiced in the Midwestern Corn Belt is one culprit. It produces the vast majority of our food, and much of that food — perhaps 70 percent of our calories — is from grasses, which produce edible seeds, or cereals. For 10,000 years we’ve plowed the soil and planted in spring and harvested in fall, one crop at a time.
In an essay he published 26 years ago, called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond theorized that this was essentially our downfall: By losing our hunter-gatherer roots and becoming dependent on agriculture, we made it possible for the human population to expand but paid the price in the often malnourishing, environmentally damaging system we have today.
That’s fascinating, and irreversible; barring a catastrophe that drastically reduces the human population, we’ll rely on agriculture for the foreseeable future. But if we look to the kind of systems Jackson talks about, we can markedly reduce the damage. “We don’t have to slay Goliath with a pebble,” he says of industrial agriculture. “We just have to quit using so much fertilizer and so many pesticides to shrink him to manageable proportions.”
Perennial polysystems are one way forward, because they allow us to produce grains, legumes, oils and other foods with a host of benefits. Gesturing across the road from where we sat, Jackson said to me: “That prairie — a prime example of a self-sustaining system — doesn’t have soil erosion, it’s not fossil-fuel dependent, you have species and chemical diversity. If you look around, you’ll see that essentially all of nature’s ecosystems are perennial polycultures; that’s nature’s instruction book.” In perennial polycultures, the plants may fertilize one another, physically support one another, ward off pests and diseases together, resist drought and flood, and survive even when one members suffers.
When Jackson founded the Land Institute, he predicted that a prairie-like system capable of providing food for humans would be viable in 50 or 100 years. About 15 years short of the near end of that spectrum, there is definite progress, most notably in the form of Kernza, which is not yet sold commercially, but has been domesticated in Salina and elsewhere.
Kernza is just the beginning. In addition to domesticating wild food-producing species, the Land Institute staff has taken on a far more challenging task: converting annuals into perennials. Perenniality is a complex trait, controlled by multiple genes. Perennials put more energy into their roots and less into flowers and seeds and greens, they send reserve energy into storage to wake up in the spring and they seldom die.
To perennialize an annual may take decades or even longer. The work might go faster if Jackson had adequate funding; he’d consider himself fully funded for the next 30 years with about one-third of one year’s federal subsidy for producing ethanol.
If Jackson’s followers are successful, we could see prairies producing different kinds of foods in commercial quantities with little or no chemical applications, irrigation, annual reseeding, tillage or tending; the work would be maintenance and harvesting. Creating the right plants for these habitats will take time, so much that we may not see the benefits in our lifetimes, but as Jackson says, “If you think you’re going to complete your life’s vision in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Mark Bittman is a columnist for The New York Times.