The Perennial Promise for Humankind
Ten thousand years ago, the bulk of the world's arable landscapes consisted of woodlands, grasslands, and rainforests. Today, annual cereal grains have stripped our land of biodiversity. Perennial grains are on the horizon, and with it a new possibility to rethink our relationship to our food, our planet, and ourselves.
Occupying more than three quarters of arable land, annual crops such as wheat, maize and rice have come to replace the biodiverse, resilient, ancient mixture of perennial plants that once reigned supreme on the earth's surface.
The story of annuals replacing perennial plants is the story of agriculture.
The story of agriculture is the story of humankind's domestication of plants and animals.
The story of domestication is the story of humankind's domination over nature.
But what are annuals and perennials?
Perennial plants are plants whose life cycle lasts more than one year (from seed to bloom to seed). There are many different types, including perennial grasses, shrubs, trees, grains and legumes. They are often defined in opposition to annuals which are plants ‘planted from seed, grow to maturity, produce seed or fruit and then die, all in one year’.
Some perennial species retain their foliage all year round, (evergreen perennials), whereas others’ foliage will die back in the winter, before growing and blooming again in spring.
What makes perennials unique (from an agricultural perspective) is that they require no year-to-year reseeding or replanting.
Why did we choose annuals for agriculture?
Historically, most grain-producing perennials have been largely ignored by farmers. It was the widespread domestication of annual (not perennial) grass species that signaled the start of the agricultural revolution some ten thousand years ago— a major shift for humanity away from hunter and gatherer lifestyles.
It was no coincidence.
Simply put, plants with the most to offer (large edible parts, self-pollination, ease of propagation, ease of seed de-hulling, able to thrive in disturbed soil near human dwellings, etc.) attracted the attention of early cultivators and were selected for domestication. Those plants — especially in the case of grains — tended to be annual, not perennial.
So what is wrong with annuals?
The first plant breeders were likely not aware of (or interested in) the reprecussions of the long term destructive practices that accompany annual agriculture. Hindsight is a beautiful thing.
Humanity’s growing reliance on ‘disturbance-based food’ — annual monocrops that require regular tillage, chemical fertiliser and pesticide use — has drastically degraded soil health. The negative environmental impact caused by soil erosion, nutrient-leakage, and soil carbon loss is well documented.
The plow — the tool that defines farming — is central to annual agriculture and to the erosion of soil.
A plow placed front and centre in the official seal of the United States Department of Agriculture
The story of soil and its mistreatment is central to explaining why ancient civilisations collapsed.
The plowshare may well have destroyed more options for future generations than the sword — Wes Jackson
David R. Montgomery on the For Food’s Sake podcast talking about how soil has shaped the course of civilisations.
Alarming rates of soil erosion, declared moderate to severe on 80% of the world’s agricultural lands, amounts to approximately 10 million hectares of cropland being abandoned annually (Lal, 1994; Pimentel and Burgess, 2013). According to a 2017 report by the UNCDD, approximately one third of all arable land has been heavily degraded due to soil erosion in the past forty years. At current rates, we've got less than 60 years of topsoil left.
The World Soil Charter of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation aptly sums up our current predicament:
‘soils are fundamental to life on Earth but human pressures on soil resources are reaching critical limits’.
Some might argue this has more to do with mismanagement than with annuals per se. This is partly true. Better management (i.e. using the principles of Conservation Agriculture) do significantly reduce the above-mentioned problems.
Nevertheless, this still overlooks the promise of perennials for agriculture.
What perennial promise?
Solving the root cause.
Perennials do not require ploughing or pesticide use. Their extensive root systems are also more effective in managing and conserving water, retaining nutrients and sequestering carbon in the soil and are thus better at supporting and building healthy soil structures and increasing soil organic matter.
The implications of a potential ‘switch’ to perennials for all major grains, pulses and oilseed crops where farmers plant once and then harvest for multiple years without the need to replant, are enormous.
Yet breeding (developing) perennial grain crops is no easy task.
Efforts to develop perennial cereal crops using the wide-hybridisation method date back to experiments in the 1920s of wheat and wheatgrass in Russia (Tsitsin and Lubimova, 1959). Further efforts were abandoned in the 1960s in both the Soviet Union and the United States due to undesirable agronomic characteristics and plant sterility (Glover et al., 2010). Today’s advances in ‘plant breeding, unprecedented computational power and a greater understanding of ecology, cytogenetics and molecular biology’ mean that breeders are much more effective and successful (Glover, 2005:1).
Patience is key
The future of perennials looks bright, although breeders know all too well that patience is key, with current estimates suggesting that the commercialisation and non-experimental use of the first perennial grains may take another 15 to 20 years.
Programs to domesticate wild perennials and perennialize annual crops, including breeding programs for intermediate wheatgrass, perennial wheat, sorghum, sunflower, and rice are being pursued globally. Parallel developments are currently taking place around the world, including at the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences in China, ISARA Lyon in France, the Swedish Infrastructure for Ecosystem Science, and at The Land Institute in Kansas USA.
Rethinking everything, perennially.
A truly transformative approach to agriculture, as described by the National Resource Council, ‘requires new thinking about farming practices and the natural environment, food markets, and communities in which they are embedded’.
Perennial agriculture may sound revolutionary enough. But why stop there?
A collaborative and multidisciplinary effort is needed that represents a radical departure from, not incremental improvement of, the current dominant agricultural system.
For instance, The Land Institute's approach extends far beyond the scientific and technical challenges of developing perennial grains. Its "Natural Systems Agriculture" concept aims to solve the 10,000 year problem of agriculture through nurturing a system of perennial polycultures that mimic nature's complex biodiverse systems. The approach is rooted in the premise that ‘we can work with — rather than against — nature in order to produce the food we need’ (TLI, 2018).
Nature as measure
A 'Natural Systems Approach' first and foremost calls for accepting the idea of "Nature as Measure"
When farming, take nature as your benchmark.
In the words of Wes Jackson, the founder of The Land Institute:
Do not try to improve on this patch of native prairie, for it will serve as your standard by which to judge your agricultural practices. There is no higher standard of your performance than the land and its natural community
In its deepest sense, these are normative notions of how human beings should relate to their environment. From The Book of Job to Shakespeare to the works of organic-pioneer Sir Albert Howard, history is ripe with comparisons of the supreme efficacy and beautiful complexity of nature with the shortcomings of man-made agriculture and the hubris that propels it forward.
The Genius of the Place
Second, we must recognise the importance of cultural knowledge, local wisdom, and community in farming. A sense of belonging, local rituals and gatherings
The value of The Land Institute's model is played in relationships — human-nature relationships based on mutuality and interdependence that translate to human-human relationships — Alicia Hullinger
An Ecological Worldview
Finally, think perennially. The Land Institute is doing so through an Ecosphere Studies program which, according to Wes Jackson et al., (2018: 43)
nurtures and explores perennial thinking through research and education based in an ecological worldview that challenges the dominant industrial model defining contemporary ways of feeding bodies and minds
It is about moving away from the extractive carbon economy — a human-centric worldview — towards an eco-centric perspective where the ‘foundational unit of analysis’ is the ecosphere.
Concretely, this is achieved through ‘driving knowledge out of its categories’ and adopting an ‘ignorance-based worldview’ (Jackson et al., 2018). The former is a multidisciplinary approach that transcends rigid academic boundaries so that scholars from all fields, teachers, students and activists freely engage and collaboratively create a perennial culture. The latter refers back to the idea of “Nature as Measure”: a rejection of “technological fundamentalism” and the conventional knowledge-confident Cartesian worldview. An ‘ignorance-based worldview’ is not anti- science, but instead a challenge to the sole dominance of reductionism in science.
By embracing an ecological worldview, the whole becomes more than the sum of its (atomic) parts.
This is not, as some might argue, a rejection of technology.
Rather, it is a call for technology to work in service of nature.