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Back to our roots

Last September I attended the Prairie Festival at The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas. At the institute, Wes Jackson and his colleagues are undertaking one of the most important agricultural research projects in the world. They have gone back to first principles and are breeding new grain crops that are perennials rather than annuals. To do so, they cross high-yielding annual crops, such as wheat and corn, with their wild perennial relatives. They have taken the long view. They expect the research will take over half a century to begin to make a significant impact on agriculture. After decades of plant breeding they are now producing a grain they call KernzaTM. KernzaTM is an intermediate wheatgrass. It is a highly nutritious perennial, and it tastes good. It is a very tough plant and has not been in the human food inventory until now. The breeders at The Land Institute feel they still have another ten years to produce a commercial version of the crop, but each year the KernzaTM seeds get larger.

The goal of The Land Institute is to restore a prairie to supply foods while creating deep, rich organic soils that not only capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but also sequester carbon. In such prairie land, much of the carbon is stored as a stable and long-lived organic material. The institute envisions a new agriculture that heals the Earth and helps to stabilize the climate, while providing the seeds and grains to help supply the food needs of the human family.

Wes Jackson is an ecologist, geneticist, and a plant breeder. His original insight came from an understanding of the uniqueness of the prairie where he grew up. The prairie is one of the best soil-building ecosystems on the planet. Its diversity is not just in plant species but also in the wide diversity of their root architecture. Some perennials send their roots down into the soil ten meters or more. At The Land Institute, the local prairie provides the operating instructions—or roadmap—for a new generation of plant breeders. Staff at the institute discovered that their systems had to mimic the prairie as closely as possible in order to tap into the uniqueness of the prairie. To this they added human ingenuity in the form of the idea that high-yielding perennial grains can be developed through cross-breeding annual seed crops and their perennial relatives.

While at The Land Institute, I saw a photographic exhibit that had a powerful influence on me. The photographer, James Richardson, had taken pictures of farmers on the land from around the world, including Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. The top half of each photograph was a close-up of the farmers on their land. What was unique and totally startling was the lower half of the pictures. The photographer had excavated the soil where the farmers stood, down to a depth of several meters. Looking at the photos it appeared that they were standing on the edge of a cliff, but the cliff was really the cross section of the soil below them. The contrast between the soil cross sections from farms around the world was both startling and revealing. The farmer from the prairie stood over deep, rich organic soil. Others, including African and the Middle Eastern farms, had soils that looked like old bones: dry and hard and bleached in color. They looked tired and parched, a legacy of centuries of working the land without giving enough new life back to the soil. There was a tragic end-of-the-road look to the soils that did not speak to a viable and durable future for those people.

As I looked at the photos, and it was hard for me to take my eyes off them, I began to realize that the great work ahead for humanity has to be the rebuilding of soils on a global scale. Fortunately there are soil-building techniques, some ancient and others modern, that have been developed in many parts of the world and can be applied to the task. Many of these techniques have been derived from the uniqueness of local ecosystems. Others are more universal in nature. They have the potential to be widely incorporated on agricultural, forested, and even wild lands. The benefits would be huge. If we could double, triple, or quadruple the organic carbon content of soils in the decades ahead, the benefits would be incredible. The productivity of the land would climb and soils' ability to hold and attract moisture would increase dramatically. The ability of the land to support economic activities would diversify and expand. If the scale of the soil-creation project was large enough, then soil building, as much as any other program currently being considered, could help lower atmospheric carbon dioxide and create a more stable climate. It could also engage a large percentage of the people around the world. Our future as a civilization may depend on returning to our roots and the organic materials that sustain them.

The hard question is how to instigate such massive change on the land. If I tried to explain to the average person that our future depends on new soils, he would look at me completely uncomprehendingly. This idea, no matter how viable, would have a hard time gaining traction in industrial and urban societies. Through the forum of Solutions, we hope to collectively come up with strategies for overcoming the political and cultural hurdles standing in the way of soil-based carbon capture.

Humanity has always been carbon based. The carbon that supported us through most of history was slow carbon embodied in trees, other plants, and animals. Since the Industrial Revolution we have shifted to using fast carbon in the form of oil and natural gas. Fast carbon is mainly finite and nonrenewable. What if we used carbon as a universal currency? What if people around the world were paid to capture and sequester carbon, particularly in soils? What if enterprises that emit carbon into the atmosphere, including, for example, coal-fired power plants, had to pay for the right to pollute based upon every ton of carbon they emitted? A tectonic shift in the way the world conducts its business, from farming to aerospace, might ensue. Let’s continue the conversation. The stakes are too important not to.

Editorial Notes:

Solutions Online is the primary venue of Solutions and the core forum for discussion about how to solve the world's mounting environmental, social, and economic problems. All content is under the Creative Commons-Share Alike license.

Photo credit: Kansas Prairie 2008, the Land Institute

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