We’re facing immense challenges on Earth today. From climate change to racism, income inequality to sexism, we need big, ambitious solutions to build a future in which we can all thrive. Often the solutions we’re presented with to these overwhelming challenges are either small tweaks to the system, or the possibility of new, flashy technologies. Rarely do they seek to reimagine the structures we live in, and to start anew in designing a better world.
From one viewpoint, Kernza® Perennial Grain doesn’t seem to be a revolutionary idea. A kernel of Kernza is a small thing - it only weighs about 1.2 mg. And it comes from a plant that has been patiently and meticulously domesticated over the past 2 decades with traditional breeding methods. Intermediate Wheatgrass, from which Kernza is harvested, has existed for a long time, serving as a grass forage crop across north america for decades.
However, the thoughtful origins of the domestication of Kernza, and the immense change it represents in the essential act of agriculture, are a wildly ambitious act of radical imagination.
Human life on earth cannot exist without soil. All of our food ultimately comes from plants and the mysteries of photosynthesis, and plants rely entirely on soil. And ever since homo sapiens first settled down and began the long path of building complex civilizations, we’ve relied on steadily eroding the earth’s soils in order to feed ourselves.
Tilled, broken down soil provides farmers the weed free seedbed necessary to plant crops. Tillage also steadily erodes this precious resource, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, breaking up microbial communities, and sending soil into watersheds. Erosion occurs on a human timescale, while soil building happens on a geologic time scale. In 2014, the UN said “Generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years.”
53 years until the earth no longer has the essential medium to grow our food? Even less in places like the Osage Hills of Kansas? Grain agriculture, supplier of 70% of the world’s calories, and fully intertwined with soil erosion, needs to be rethought.
Luckily, the visionaries at The Land Institute (TLI) have been hard at work on this problem for decades. Their mission:
When people, land, and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited. By consulting Nature as the source and measure of that membership, The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned, while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring.
Patiently, persistently, they’re doing it. Instead of an agriculture based on annual tillage, TLI is creating the tools for a new type of agriculture: perennial agriculture. Mimicking nature, perennial grains will be planted once, and stay in the ground for multiple years. This extended growing period combined with breeding selections results in plants with enormous root structures, capable of holding onto and building soil.
In changing one key piece of agriculture, TLI is imagining a future earth with healthy soil, a resilient agricultural system, and prospering communities. TLI is imagining and building real meaningful change through an entirely new system.
Kernza has now gotten to the point where companies like ours can exist. We’re lucky to be building on TLI’s work and legacy, and to work in concert with so many other partners who see the vision and possibility of perennial agriculture.
The time of perennial agriculture is here, and it will take all of us to make it succeed.