AN IDEA LIKE NO OTHER. "Our purpose is to develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops." That is the core ambition of The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, Wes Jackson, President. I serve as Chairman of the Board and am consequently biased. Still, I think it is a fine purpose, and none more important.
Contemporary American agriculture is a failure disguised as success. The success lies in high rates of productivity and the provision of inexpensive food for domestic and foreign tables. The failure is its unsustainable treatment of a key resource: the soil. There is chemical pollution, of course, but the more fundamental failure is that standard agriculture compels losses in the amount of soil and in the degree of soil fertility. These deficits are compensated by injections of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers. The cost of the fertilizers depends on the price of natural gas which, over the long haul, is going only up. And the eroded soil and the fertilizer run-offs travel down the Mississippi and make Dead Zones in the Gulf of Mexico. It's not a system with legs.
Hence the scientists at The Land Institute are breeding perennial polyculturals: plants that feature deep roots, that produce seeds year after year, and that derive pest and drought resistances through their proximity to other plants. Minimal soil erosion, little or no fertilizer inputs, lower costs for machinery and fuels. The particulars are summarized in an excellent article in Scientific American. Staff scientist Jerry Glover was recently profiled in Nature.
For years, Wes and his staff have had to endure the hauteur of the Ag Establishment, the myopia of the funding world, and the impatience of audiences ready to eat a perennial sandwich. Well, darn it, now there is a prototype: a perennial grass with deep roots and plentiful grain seeds. The new plants still number only in the hundreds, and tests and more tests are required. But the seeds can be ground into flour, and the flour beat into pancake batter, and the pancakes taste delicious. ¡Vamonos!