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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reconsidering The World's Bread Basket

Air Date: Week of

Becky Rumsey reports from central Kansas on the findings of the Land Institute, which advocates a return to the prairie's native grain ecosystem. Returning to the original grains could lessen soil erosion, water and pesticide use, and increase long term crop yields.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A century and a half ago, a sea of tall grass blanketed North America from Ohio to the Rocky Mountains. The fertile soil seemed a godsend to early European settlers, who eagerly plowed it up to plant profitable grains like wheat and corn. Over time, the soil wore out and yields declined. Then chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other technologies boosted yields again after World War II. But some say we're now approaching the limits of those methods, and that a more sustainable future lies in the original ecology of the prairie itself, and the mix of grains that grew there for thousands of years. Among the pioneers of this new approach is The Land Institute in central Kansas. Becky Rumsey recently visited The Land Institute and has this report.

(Sound of wind and walking through tall grass; birdsong)

RUMSEY: On a clear summer morning in central Kansas, John Piper walks through grasses that in a good year grow 6 to 8 feet tall.

PIPER: We're near the western border of what's considered the true prairie or the tall grass prairie. And so the dominant grasses here are a Big Blue Stem, Indian grass and Switch Grass.

RUMSEY: Piper is staff ecologist at The Land Institute. Located on 300 acres near the town of Salina, The Land Institute is pioneering an approach to agriculture that uses nature as its model.

PIPER: We're standing in a small patch of never-plowed tall grass prairie. It's probably as close as we can imagine to what original prairie was like. We have an 8-an d-a-half...

RUMSEY: A century and a half ago when waves of settlers crossed the grassland sea, they plowed up native grasses, planted crops, and transformed the region into the bread basket of the world. But researchers at The Land Institute say the early sod-busters and the industrial agriculture that followed sacrificed the land's health for high yields. Land Institute founder Wes Jackson says modern agriculture is extremely vulnerable to collapse. The native Kansan, trained in botany and genetics, points to massive soil erosion; depleted aquifers; chemical residues in water, soils, and food; and a dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels. Jackson says the secret to sustainable agriculture lies in what the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope would have called "consulting the genius of the place."

JACKSON: If you compare, say, a wheat field or a corn field with a prairie, you see that the prairie runs on sunlight; wheat field runs on fossil fuel. The prairie has species diversity, which is chemical diversity. So it would take a tremendous enzyme system on the part of an insect or a pathogen to mow it down. The prairie sponsors its own nitrogen. The nitrogen in most of our fields comes from natural gas that's a feed stock for nitrogen fertilizer.

RUMSEY: There are 2 key properties of the prairie that Jackson and his colleagues want agriculture to mimic. One is its diversity. Most farmers grow crops in monocultures: whole fields of a single crop. In the prairie, many species grow together. Ecologist John Piper.

PIPER: This naturally manages insect, pest and plant diseases, because the insects or the pests, diseases have a harder time locating host plants and they're moving from host to host.

RUMSEY: In the prairie, different plants play complementary roles. Legumes, like lead plant or cat claw sensitive briar, add nitrogen to the soil. Sunflowers repel weeds. Seasonal grasses alternate growth periods. Most of them are perennials, and that, says Piper, is the other cue The Land Institute is taking from the prairie.

PIPER: Ninety-nine percent of the plants that you find out in the prairie are perennial plants. In other words, they don't die each year after producing, flowering and producing seed, but they come back year after year from perennial roots or crowns of some sort of underground structures.

RUMSEY: It's this thick mat of roots that accounts for the prairie's rich, self-regenerating soil. When farmers tilled it, they permanently interrupted the prairie's soil-building process. In its place they planted annuals like wheat, corn, and soybeans. Most agriculture is based on annuals. But according to Jackson, that's where it went wrong: at its very beginning some 10,000 years ago. To cultivate annuals, a farmer must till and plant every year, exposing the soil to wind and water erosion. Perennials, on the other hand, reproduce on their own. But it's precisely because they don't produce many seeds that there aren't any perennial grain crops in the human inventory. So in the late 1970s, The Land Institute surveyed hundreds of native prairie plants and found 4 species that showed promise. The Illinois Bundle Flower, Mammoth Wild Rye, the Maximilian Sunflower, and Eastern Gamma Grass. Again, John Piper.

PIPER: Eastern Gamma Grass is a relative of corn or maize. It can be ground and used a lot like cornmeal. It even tastes good. It contains about 29% protein, which is about 3 times that of corn. And its major limitation is that the seed yield is relatively low.

RUMSEY: And that's the crux of the challenge: breeding new crops that combine the ecological advantages of perennials with the high seed yield of annuals. Scientists at The Land Institute are optimistic that a whole array of perennial crops can be developed, even if it takes 50 to 100 years. Here on the Great Plains, conventional agriculture could last at least that long, especially if fossil fuel stays cheap. But Steve Marglin, a economics professor at Harvard University, sees long-term value in the work Wes Jackson is doing.

MARGLIN: There should be 100 Wes Jacksons and we should be supporting each one of them, generously, on the grounds that maybe one of them will produce something that will replace the present system, at such point as it becomes untenable.

RUMSEY: Margolin thinks The Land Institute's approach could be applied to ecosystems around the globe, from tropical and temperate forests to deserts. Wes Jackson compares The Land Institute's progress on the American prairie to that of the Wright Brothers at the time of Kitty Hawk. It' s a modest test of a potentially revolutionary principle: a sustainable grain agriculture modeled on the genius of nature itself. For Living on Earth, I'm Becky Rumsey.



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