Wes Jackson talks agriculture for the future: Perennial polycultures

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Workers harvest intermediate wheatgrass in a nursery at The Land Institute. Photo courtesy of Scott Bontz/Wikimedia Commons.

By Marlee Ellison

Farmers tend to plant annual “monocultures,” or large areas that grow only one crop. That’s why there are so many expansive soybean fields in Missouri and corn fields in Colorado. Wes Jackson, president of the Kansas-based Land Institute, might have a better idea: “perennial polycultures.”

Perennial polycultures involve the cultivation of more than one perennial species in a plot of land. While the lifespan of annual plants is only one growing season, perennials subsist year after year. They mirror our natural ecosystems and offer a solution to what Jackson calls “humanity’s 10,000-year-old problem” – agriculture.

Jackson spoke about the benefits of these perennial polycultures at the MU’s Life Sciences and Society Program Symposium on March 19. The Land Institute advocates greener techniques in the agriculture and hones in on the benefits of perennial grains and natural polycultures in place of today’s conventional agricultural methods.

Instead of working with the environment, humanity typically goes against it. For thousands of years, human beings have practiced disruptive methods to grow staple crops. This caused soaring global temperatures, increasing soil erosion, and weakening biodiversity. According to The Land Institute’s website, nitrogen fertilizers are also potent contributors to global warming: “Some escapes to the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent (by weight) than carbon dioxide.”

To strengthen his point, Jackson rolled out a scroll comparing two life-sized images of perennial and annual intermediate wheatgrass, roots and all. While the roots on the annuals are wispy, the roots on the perennials were strikingly longer and more complex. Over a few months, the perennial roots can grow up to a meter longer than their annual counterparts.

The long roots on perennials are better at storing nutrients and locking in carbon from our atmosphere. Additionally, these roots allow microorganisms to enrich the soil and convert carbon dioxide.

Jackson said that when people first started farming, they uprooted the preexisting perennial flora. “In order for us to eat, nature had to be subdued or ignored,” Jackson said. While natural prairie ecosystems thrive without watering and tilling, human farming can be a gamble.

“I think climate change began with agriculture,” Jackson said.

Jackson said that farmers must return to humanity’s “original relationship with the world” and switch to perennial staple crops instead of today’s annuals. These natural ecosystems have greater production than human-made agricultural systems.

The Land Institute is spearheading the “perennialization” of different crops, including wheatgrass, sorghum, sunflowers and rice. This involves cross breeding current annual crops with their perennial relatives or domesticating wild perennials. They hope this will change the world of sustainable agriculture, provide an alternative to fossil fuel dependency and curb climate change.

Jackson stressed that though we understand the dangers of environmental degradation and climate change, we need to do more to halt it. “We know we need to protect the ecosphere. We know we need to save our soil. We know we need to stop greenhouse gases from accumulating,” he said. Embracing radical agricultural changes just might help.

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