As our attention turns toward the 2012 Farm Bill, it's appropriate to look at a farm bill that has an eye toward the future - 50 years into the future, to be exact. Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has bigger ideas than just the traditional and myopic 5-year Farm Bill. An exceptional and forward-thinking individual, Wes, a plant genetist by trade, has put together the 50-year Farm Bill, using the 5-year Farm Bill as a tool for incremental change toward the transition to perennial grains and grasses, which hold the potential to preserve the soil and also feed us through a drought. (Yes, corn is a grass.)
In addition to traveling to DC to talk with USDA officials and Senators about the 50-year Farm Bill, Wes and his good friend, Wendell Berry, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times last spring.
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50-year Farm Bill
Securing food for the long haul demands visionary federal policy
Anyone familiar with The Land Institute’s work over the last three decades knows we’ve emphasized that grains grown in a context more like natural prairie, featuring perennial mixtures, would check farming’s continuing degradation of the land and water. In fact, we have relentlessly stated that this perennialization of the landscape is the most cost-effective way for us to stop the damage and stay fed. But to develop a full array of these perennials to replace their annual analog will take more decades. And there is the rub. Proﬁt-paying industry won’t invest for returns so long coming, even if they are more long-lived.
There are a few people breeding prototypes for perennial grains now: The Land Institute scientists, researchers at a few land grant schools, and scientists in China, Australia and Canada. But these efforts are few, small and isolated. To signiﬁcantly cut our ecological losses calls for a broad and committed social contract beyond the current social contracts for agriculture: the US farm bills. But these are ﬁve-year deals, still shortsighted for what’s needed, and allotting only a thin slice for conservation.
What’s needed is to think like a 50-year farm bill, just as Aldo Leopold urged us to think like a mountain. Think of federal policy aiming for an agriculture that is as nature-tough as we can make it. Develop perennial grains that make farming resilient and sustainable in a way impossible for today’s agriculture, where government and fossil fuel subsidies obscure but do not staunch the hemorrhaging. Use the ﬁve-year bills as mileposts and adjustment points for scientists breeding those perennial grains, and to meanwhile encourage other perennial cover, like pasture for grazing, or perennials in rotations, instead of subsidizing annual grains to supply feedlots. In 50 years we could see the farm landscape go from 80 percent annuals, dead half of the year or more, to 80 percent perennials. For the ﬁrst time we could see grain agriculture capable of conservation that restores natural fertility to ﬁelds and keeps them productive for millennia.
Based on Agriculture Department ﬁgures for current research funding, 120 scientists and their staff could do the work with $50 million a year. This is 8 percent of what the public and private sectors together spent on plant breeding in the late 1990s. The breeders could tackle six to eight major crops, at locations across the country to assure the plants are diverse and, so, the food system more dependable.
The Land Institute doesn’t seek this funding for itself or any other organizations in particular. It offers to the endeavor free seed from its decade of progress with hybrid prototypes of perennial wheat, sorghum, sunﬂower and other crops.
Our advance has come from ﬁve scientists and a handful of technicians and summer ﬁeld hands. But because the change needed is systemic, the Agriculture Department should take the lead.
Land Institute President Wes Jackson last year met top USDA ofﬁcials to promote a 50-year plan. The Land Institute also sponsored 10 meetings across the country with farmers, ranchers and representatives of organizations for sustainable agriculture. The coalition can help build a broader constituency for long-range federal policy that includes returning grain lands to perennial plants, even if only in crop rotations. This kind of policy shift depends not only on endorsement by the secretary of Agriculture, but the president, Congress, nonproﬁt organizations, corporations and citizens.
Jackson went to Washington with Fred Kirschenmann, of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and writer Wendell Berry. They say a 50-year bill’s goal is necessary and its enactment possible. Even if a bill doesn’t pass, it will increase imagination for dealing with problems bound to become more daunting. Berry said, “If it fails politically, that doesn’t invalidate it.”
Essentially all of nature’s ecosystems feature perennial plants growing in species mixtures, and they build soil. Agriculture turned this complex, productive and long-lived system on its head, by substituting annual monocultures. Annual tillage loses soil nutrients, soil structure beneﬁcial to plant growth, and soil itself. Modern “no-till” farming cuts erosion with herbicides that pollute water – and it still loses soil. Adding to the water pollution is fertilizer that compensates for how annual cropping has gutted soil fertility. Agriculture is blamed for 70 percent of US water contamination. The fertilizer comes from unsustainable mining – of fossil fuel to synthesize nitrogen, and more directly, phosphorus, among other minerals. Most land available for new production is of marginal quality that declines quickly under cultivation. But these lands will be pursued as human population and its appetite grow. So along with greater rate of erosion comes greater application of fertilizer and pesticides, while they last. The United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment said agriculture is the largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of anything humans do.
Perennial grains can help by mimicking the wild perennials that dominate nature. Perennials’ massed roots and underground stems remain alive year-round. They guard soil against erosion by wind and water. Their roots, and the arthropods, fungi and bacteria that live among them, make the soil more porous, friable and alive. This soil soaks up water rather than shed it. And because the perennials’ roots are more massive, reach deeper, live longer and build a soil web, they make more productive use of the water, along with nutrients. The continuous underground infrastructure also gives green growth and photosynthesis a head-start of weeks over annuals struggling from seed.
Grain agriculture began with annuals probably because they were in some ways more convenient to Paleolithic farmers. But with our knowledge of biology today, there is no reason that perennial grains cannot feed us well.
We are not arguing to stop anything all at once. The 50-year farm bill proposes gradual systemic change in agriculture. In the short run, we can achieve gains through policy that encourages farmers to increase the use of perennial grasses and legumes in crop rotations. The big gain will come when perennial grains become available over the coming decades. By capturing more solar energy, improving soil and water quality, and taking less fuel and equipment time to work them, perennials will present a compelling alternative to annual grains.
To help win support for development of perennial grain agriculture, The Land Institute has given people small samples of ﬂour from a perennial wheat relative, intermediate wheatgrass. It has an excellent nutritional profile. And folks like it. We secured a trademarked name, Kernza. Researcher Lee DeHaan estimates that with funding expanded to support two full-time scientists and support staff, a product could be ready for farmers in another decade. The other crops aren’t yet as close, but they are progressing.
Perennialization of the 70 percent of US cropland now in grains could extend the productive life of our soils from the current tens or hundreds of years to thousands or tens of thousands. New perennial crops, like their wild relatives, seem certain to better handle climate change. Without a doubt, they will increase sequestration of carbon. They will reduce the polluted runoff that drives life from ocean ﬁsheries, as well as improve the quality of scarce surface and groundwater. They will improve food security, and this will bolster social stability and ecological sustainability. The three go together.
Originally published in The Land Report, Spring 2010 The Land Institute.