Wired recently published mini-profiles of a number of scientists working on ultra-ambitious projects. I was particularly intrigued by Wes Jackson’s effort to domesticate perennial crops:
Replanting every season tears up the ground and disrupts delicate soil ecosystems. But don’t blame Big Agriculture or the high-input, high-yield Green Revolution of the 20th century. Blame the Neolithic brainiac who first saved a handful of seeds and poked them into the ground instead the stew pot.
The first farmers domesticated annual grains (wheat, corn, barley) and pulses (lentils, peas). They had the biggest seeds and highest yields, but they’re parasites, returning little to their environment. It’s perennials that build extensive root networks and healthy soil, conserve water, and recycle nutrients. (After harvest in the fall, they grow again from their roots in the spring.) Natural systems function best when diverse species live together. Yet we blanket the Midwest with crops of genetically homogenous corn—and we plow, spray, and fertilize the heck out of them. It’s a system that modern agriculture can’t sustain, says Jackson, “but without a new green revolution, we’ll destroy our soil trying.”
Jackson’s Land Institute in Salina, Kansas has already made progress:
Newly domesticated Kernza, a perennial relative of wheat, should be farmer-ready within a decade, Jackson says, and perennialized sunflower-Jerusalem artichoke hybrids are undergoing work to improve yield. Illinois bundleflower, a native legume, may be one of the first new legumes to be domesticated.
If Jackson succeeds, he will make a far greater contribution to human progress than any politician I can think of. The barriers to success, however, are considerable. Perhaps the most obvious will be the reluctance of consumers to embrace unfamiliar legumes as new staples. Yet I also imagine that our ability to manipulate the taste and texture of food will also increase markedly in the coming years, and so Kernza-based foods might taste a lot like more familiar fare.