Photograph by Jim Richardson
Who knew a farm field could be so exciting? What if it holds the key to saving biodiversity, polluted ecosystems, and starving people? What if, in fact, it all comes down to a new grain of wheat?
Agroecologist Jerry Glover is working on it, and he claims the future starts with the past. “Before agriculture, natural plant communities ruled the earth and kept ecosystems in perfect balance. How? Those plants were perennials, alive year-round and incredibly efficient at regulating processes like nutrient cycling and water management that protect ecosystem health. Their roots stretch deep below ground, controlling erosion and improving soil quality. Perennial plants are uniquely equipped to efficiently capture and use sunlight, nutrients, and water to nourish large landscapes.”
Then everything changed. Humans harnessed vast swaths of the planet, replacing natural grasses with plants that take much more than they give to crucial natural systems—billions of acres of annual crops. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment survey, agriculture is now the number one man-made threat to global biodiversity and ecosystem function. “It’s time,” says Glover, “to put natural plant communities back in charge of the landscape.”
“Annual crops,” he explains, “must be planted from seed every year, literally starting over from scratch. That requires tremendous amounts of time, effort, and expense because annual crop species are very inefficient. They allow half of the nitrogen fertilizer farmers spread over fields to escape below the root zone or run off the soil surface. Growing annual crops requires extra fertilizer, heavy machinery, and disturbance of the land; and every year it’s required again.”
In contrast, if perennial crops could be developed, croplands would be more like the natural grasslands that once dominated the Earth. Crops could be harvested year after year without being replanted, enrich rather than deplete the soil of key nutrients, and require little or no fertilizer or pesticides.
Glover is part of a research team developing perennial crops that could revolutionize agriculture and solve problems far beyond farm fields. They focus on grains because that’s what almost 70 percent of the world’s agricultural land grows. These crops, primarily wheat, rice, and maize, provide more than 70 percent of human calories.
The Land Institute in Kansas, where Glover works, partners with plant breeders and agricultural scientists around the world to develop prototypes they hope will become viable perennial crops. It won’t happen overnight. The process involves meticulous genetic detective work, breeding and crossbreeding seeds to select characteristics that will ultimately make a top crop. Glover estimates it will be 10 to 20 years before the first perennial wheatgrass, sorghum, and rice are ready for widespread production.
As a soil specialist, Glover compares perennial prairie meadows with annual crop fields growing beside them. “The prairie meadows are very productive with no human intervention; they can be harvested year after year and maintain excellent soil quality. Right next to them, the agricultural fields’ soil health has dramatically declined despite heavy inputs of fertilizer and pesticide.”
Why does this world beneath our feet matter so much? Many nutrients essential to human health come from the soil. Plants are the delivery system. “When we lose the health of our soil through erosion or degradation,” says Glover, “crucial nutrients are no longer carried up to plants and passed on to humans. Studying this helps us see how perennial crops of the future could be farmed with less effort, more nutritional value, and at the high yields we’ll need to feed a planet of seven to nine billion hungry people.”
Already, more than one billion people are classified as urgently hungry, on the verge of starvation. Glover points out that “more than half the world’s population depends on marginal landscapes unsuited for producing annual crops. Perennial crops could be much more successfully, sustainably produced on those lands and hugely benefit developing nations that support so much of the world’s population.”
Perennial crops could also boost prospects for farmers in the developed world, since much of their gross income is spent on the seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides needed for annual crops. Perennial crops would offer a way to cut those expensive inputs and plow more profit back to farm families and communities.
Ecologists also increasingly recognize the off-farm impacts of annual crops. A prime example is the link between the U.S. "corn belt" and the Gulf of Mexico. After the yearly harvest, millions of acres of farmland have no living plant cover. Nitrogen, fertilizer, and pesticides from that exposed soil are carried into waterways, creating an annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) downstream. “We cannot cordon off our agricultural fields from cherished areas of biodiversity,” Glover warns. “Focusing more of our conservation attention on farmland could transform our ability to preserve sites we all treasure.”
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Food security is central to global relationships. If we can develop new crops that feed more people, yet do less harm to the planet, the world will feel the difference.
Emerging Explorer Jerry Glover connects healthy soil to human survival.
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