I was pleased recently to join a conference at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, on the future of agriculture. The organizing principle was the potential of perennialism, especially in grains, for introducing the new departure that is so clearly necessary to protect the world from poisoning by current industrial agricultural practices. A key contribution to elaborating the problem was made by Nancy Rabelais and her husband, Gene Turner, both from Baton Rouge. Nancy has a really firm grip on the causes and effects of the anoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico produced by the excess nitrogen, largely as nitrate, passed down the Mississippi from agriculture in the drainage basin. The problem, despite a clear recognition of the cause, is increasing and now covers annually an area of the Gulf as large or larger than the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The effect on the Gulf, of course, is devastating. It is now compounded by the effects of this last year’s dump of oil from the BP blowout. The effect is a crushing biotic impoverishment of the Gulf with no reprieve. A cure will require a major change in agriculture throughout the entire Basin, assuming that time will cure even the crushing residual damage from the oil.
The problems of the Gulf are far from unique. They are shared by coastal marine systems around the world where rivers flush nitrogen from the land. In other places coastal waters are enriched deliberately to culture shrimp and other crops. The biotic impoverishment is the same and virtually ubiquitous.
The needs of seven billion people for food are also inexorable, and the demand will increase as the seven billion move toward nine billion over the next years. Agriculture is universally expected to expand to meet these new demands for food..
Unfortunately, this expansion of population does not occur uniformly and does not necessarily offer the expanding market that the system admires and depends on. The expansion is greatest among the poor, those who are not in the market and whose hunger does not really affect price at all because they are not bidding. They starve…or make their own food. Industrial agriculture is not a boon to them for it gives them neither food nor a job to enable them to buy food. So the core problem of feeding the hungry millions at the expense of massive problems with pollution is not resolved.
Worse, in many regions soil productivity declines as annual cropping intensifies and spreads to larger areas as population growth continues. The benefits of the Green Revolution are ephemeral or non-existent for many who may have land or access to land but who cannot reach or afford the seeds and fertilizer and care required to benefit from the culture of new high yielding strains. The entire system is failing.
A systematic analysis of cropping systems in agriculture has shown the overwhelming advantages of perennialism over annualism in stabilizing land, nutrients, and yields. Applied to grain crops the shift to perennials would prove a huge benefit through almost every channel including reaching the poor with an annual yield on stable soils. The rooting systems are larger by factors in some cases of 10-20 fold and reach depths far greater than those reached by annual crops. Greater depths of rooting reduce losses from short term drought, increase nutrient pools, and depths of soil development, not to mention stability on slopes. Substantial progress has been made toward developing perennial grains through classical techniques in selection over many generations. A strain of wheat has been developed at The Land Institute that is perennial for a few years and seems to offer further potential. I t has been named Kernza and is being distributed to a small group of users experimentally.
Now modern molecular genetics offers potential for moving genes around and building new strains. The immediate proposal is for a greatly enhanced program of experimentation using groups of several scientific colleagues exploring different channels in different places around the world. The groups would supplement university or other institutions’ programs and would of course require separate financing.
This development, if it can be realized, offers a major revolution in human affairs and in our use of the earth. It challenges corporate power in controlling agriculture and passes real potential to individuals to feed themselves locally. It has the potential for restoring the chemical and physical integrity of drainage basins and coastal waters as well as the oceans, avoiding the continuous transfers of toxins into the oceanic sump as is now the process. It is clearly a major forward step in restoring a functional global ecosystem.
On the other hand agriculture does not control the globe. It is vulnerable to climatic disruption, chemical contamination of water, air, and land, from whatever source, and to political and economic unrest. The great issues of environment remain the disruption of climate and the chemical disruption of the earth, both chronic disruptions that contribute to the systematic biotic impoverishment of land and water to the eternal detriment of the entire human undertaking. No one is in a position to address this issue more powerfully than we are at the Woods Hole Research Center. Forests remain at the core of the issue, secondary in climate only to the oceans. And forests are our oyster. More than that we ecologists have a realistic world view firmly based in evolution and a conviction that environmental integrity will determine both economic and political potential in the next decades. We have a serious mission uniquely our own, not shared with universities, at least in the normal course.
How we proceed is also pretty well defined by the tools now available, developed in some part by ourselves for the purpose. Nothing could be a more powerful lesson than our program of monitoring the north flowing rivers of the northern hemisphere as they carry the effluents from Boreal Forest and tundra into the Arctic Ocean. The effluents tell all the world much about what is happening in the largest forested area in the world and in the adjacent largest tundra region with its giant carbon pool in permafrost and peat. And on land around the world we can monitor changes in land use and tell for the normally naturally forest regions just how well each region is doing in managing its biotic resources and thereby contributing to the improvement, or destruction, of the human habitat. If we are serious about our mission in the world, we have a job, a very serious one that we can take on and execute with precision and talent and imagination as few others in the world can do. We can add if we wish, toxic substances to our talents, and more rivers including the Amazon and the Congo, already our own.
These thoughts ran through my mind as this remarkable group from around the world assembled in an unlikely place on the western edge of the tall grass prairie to consider how to spring a revolution on a corporate agricultural system that is clearly running the world down and screaming for repair while touting its prodigious challenge in expanding to feed the teaming millions it can never reach.