New era of farming

 By RP Siegel

With the world’s population heading towards 10 billion even as a changing climate is bringing unprecedented droughts in some areas and flooding in others, there are many concerns about how this tremendous number of people are going to be fed. Numerous approaches are looking at ways to leverage technology, whether it’s genetically modified crops or vertical hydroponic greenhouses. There are also some strong and compelling efforts by those looking at nature as our best teacher, with a heightened appreciation of crucial importance of maintaining rich soil as the foundation of any society…

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Eniday has recently run some stories about new high-tech agricultural systems that grow plants indoors, stacked vertically in warehouses. These new approaches will be helpful in meeting growing demand and providing fresh, local food in places like cities, where it might otherwise not be available.

Still the bulk of our plant-based nutrition will come from grains, which necessarily will be grown in fields, in soils that have served as the foundation of agriculture for millennia. With the human population expected to reach 10 billion or more within a lifetime or two, coming up with ways to grow considerably more food without too many more additional resources, is undoubtably a monumental challenge. At the same time, there are increasing concerns today about the depletion of our soils from overproduction, erosion, mechanical compaction, and the long-term impacts of potent chemical agents used to both fend off insect pests and weeds.

Indeed, as Professors Mary and Bob Scholes have said in the journal Science, “Great civilizations have fallen because they failed to prevent the degradation of the soils on which they were founded. The modern world could suffer the same fate.” The problem, as the Scholes’ and others have pointed out, is the failure to recognize that the soil is itself a living thing, filled with billions of tiny microbes that play an essential role in maintaining soil fertility. In fact, a spoonful of healthy soil contains more organisms than the number of people on the planet.

Invisible to us, we ignore their health and viability at our own peril. Yet, the system of agriculture that sustains us today, does little to nurture the soil’s ecosystem. This is a major reason why soils are depleting and erosion has become a major threat, leaving the industry increasingly dependent on chemicals to pump vitality into exhausted soil.

SEE MORE: The rise of food computers by RP Siegel

Even today, mankind is still learning much about the complex world that exists beneath our feet. Among other things, we are just beginning to fully appreciate the role of soil in storing carbon. Concerned about the destructive aspect of modern agriculture, many individuals and organizations are offering alternatives, in the hope of transforming our food system into a more sustainable one, based on the lessons offered to us every day in nature.

The Land Institute was founded in 1976, on 600 acres outside of Salina, Kansas, with a vision to displace “the now predominant industrial, disruptive system of agriculture,” and to instead “provide staple foods without destroying or compromising the cultural and ecological systems upon which we depend.”

Founder Wes Jackson believes that civilization took a wrong turn 10,000 years ago, when we began plowing up the land to grow crops in uniform monoculture fields filled with annual plants that require replanting every year. “Just look around at plants growing in the wild. Nature has a far more efficient, more productive plan,” he said.

Brilliant, passionate, and boldly outspoken, Jackson is quoted as saying that, “the plowshare may well have destroyed more options for future generations than the sword.” Jackson, who holds a PhD in Genetics, credits the native prairie that he grew up around as perhaps his greatest teacher. What this, “herbaceous, perennial, vegetative polyculture,” showed him was a highly evolved system of more than 200 plant species that had uniquely co-evolved to withstand the frigid, icy winters and the blistering, dry summers of the Midwestern plains with minimal losses.

This symbiotic cooperation among these perennial grasses, some with roots as much as 25 to 30 feet deep, goes a long way to explain how those few areas left undisturbed, survived the Dust Bowl drought years that Jackson was born into, while those 400 million acres turned over for planting wheat and other grains, literally became a desert. These are valuable lessons in an era of drastically changing climate.

Clearly, annuals, depending on a high rate of germination as they do, produce more seed than their perennial relatives, who only need to produce enough seed to replenish what died off that year. Jackson’s quest has been to find a handful of perennial plant species that can be persuaded to yield enough grain to become a food source that will require substantially less plowing, planting and cultivation. He also seeks to identify a group of plants that will support each other synergistically, as native prairie plants do. Some break up the soil with deep roots while others provide shade, while still others fix nutrients. His approach has been twofold—using selective breeding to improve the yields of existing perennials, or to find ways to perennialize existing grain crops. Forty years in, results have been encouraging. When Jackson first started, he said this would be a 100-year project. Now, he says, they are ahead of schedule.

Jackson discussed how annual grains came to play such an important role from the very beginnings of agriculture and how they compare to perennials in terms of ecological success. Said Jackson, “Most ecosystems move towards perennial plants and a diversity of perennial species. Where you see annuals dominating is usually as a consequence of disturbance. Annuals in nature, play the role of early colonizers. This is why humans only use annual grains.”

He continued, “Whether it was around the campfires in the upper Paleolithic, or whether it was 10,000 years ago, with the disturbance at the end of the Pleistocene, with the ice retreating and people settling more, they began to harvest seeds from wheat in western Iran.” So, in essence, annuals generally play a transitional play in nature, and by harvesting, plowing and continually replanting them, we, in a sense remain stuck in an early stage of natural succession. Here’s why this matters. “[Stanford Professor] Chris Field has shown that nature’s ecosystems generally have greater net primary production than the human managed systems that have followed.”

This grain is ready for a beer

In a natural state, perennial systems are more productive than annuals. “When you consider that 70 percent of planted acreage and 70 percent of calories consumed are in the form of grains and legumes, you get a sense of the opportunity this presents,” said Jackson.

According to Jackson, researchers at the Land Institute have figured out why our ancestors could not develop perennial grains, and why we can now. The explanation is highly technical, but it has to do with inbreeding suppression and genetic load. The mathematics involved are far too complex and the probabilities too miniscule for them to have succeeded. Today’s computational capabilities however, open up the possibility. The genetic ingredients are still needed, however, which is why the Land Institute has engaged with botanical gardens around the world to develop a global inventory of all currently existing perennial species, looking for a suitable candidate.

Meanwhile, the Land Institute has developed a first perennial grain, Kernza®, derived from intermediate wheat grass. Says Jackson, “The last time we had a new grain added to human inventory was about 4,000 years ago; that was corn.” With roots that extend 10 feet below ground, this grass is ideally suited to the stressful drought conditions that are expected to impact agricultural areas in the years ahead. Being perennial means much lower impact on the soil, less erosion, fewer weeds, pests and chemicals. The Kernza grain can be ground into flour for baking and is often blended with wheat. It is also being used to make beer. Patagonia Provisions has sold more than 650,000 cans of Long Root Ale, made from this perennial grain, the first to have ever been used in a commercial food product.

The main idea behind perennial agriculture, which is only now getting its start, is to preserve and maintain the soil which is such a precious asset to any nation. But what about soils that have already been depleted by overuse, whose vitality has been lost, where the billions of microscopic organisms are starved for water and oxygen due to compaction from heavy farm equipment continuously running over it?

That’s where BioNurse comes in. This group, headed by Camila Hernandez and Camila Gratacos of the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation, in Valparaíso, Chile, recently won the $100,000 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge “Ray of Hope” prize for the creation of a soil restoration solution. The question that drove the design was, “where are living spaces generated within the soil?”

In nature, plants are self-perpetuating. Like the engine in a car, once started, they keep going, until they run out of fuel. But how do you start them in the first place, on a patch of barren ground? In nature, when a plot of ground becomes barren, whether due to overuse or a fire or other extreme weather condition, a process of succession begins. First patches appear, consisting of colonizing plants. These are the transitional annuals that Wes Jackson was talking about. Once their seeds, blown in by wind or carried by animals, germinate, they begin a process which includes the establishment of symbiotic relationships with fungi and other subsoil organisms.

Once these colonizing plants are established, they are followed by larger nurse plants. According to Hai Ren, et al, writing in Progress in Natural Science, “Nurse plants are those that facilitate the growth and development of other plant species (target species) beneath their canopy because they offer benign microhabitats that are more favorable for seed germination and/or seedling recruitment than their surrounding environment. Nurse plants have been mainly used to restore vegetation in arid and sub-arid zones in recent years.”

What BioNurse has created a product called Biopatch that combines the action of nurse plants with that of colonizing plants, to create patches. The Biopatch is a circular dome-shaped disk made of biodegradable materials such as corn husks. They call it a “live incubator.” Mimicking the shape of the yareta plant, a type of nurse plant common in the Andes region, it holds seeds, while helping them to get established. The patch is designed to provide shelter from sun and wind, while helping to maintain humidity, much as nurse plants do. Once the seedlings are established, the biopatch disappears into the soil, where it will continue to provide nutrients to both the plants and the countless organism living in the soil, while also enhancing the soil’s capacity to retain water. Eventually, the spaces between patches fill in.

The initial design was focused on the fruit orchards in Chile that are suffering heavy losses due to soil compaction. However the judges felt confident that the design can be expanded to other areas.

According to John A. Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, who oversaw the competition and for whom the prize was named, “The judges were impressed with the way that the BioNurse team utilized biomimicry on multiple levels. Moreover, we believe in their potential to commercialize and scale the concept to achieve a significant impact in areas of the world where farming is limited due to poor soil.”

The Global Design Challenge is a program of the Biomimicry Institute. Both of these efforts are deeply concerned with the health of the soil. Both are trying to replicate some of the synergies found in nature. And both are blazing new paths forward towards a more sustainable way of producing food for a hungry planet.

SEE MORE: Using nature as mentor by RP Siegel

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.