Perennial Crops, Sustainable Agriculture: A 21st Century Green Revolution

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Annual wheat - Wes Jackson proposes transforming the farmscape to perennials

When two German scientists figured out how to how to turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, in what is now known as the Haber-Bosch process, human society was, at the risk of cliche, transformed.

Considered by many as the most important invention of the 20th century, Haber-Bosch harnessed, for the first time, the abundance of nitrogen in the atmosphere, from which ammonia could be created on an industrial scale. Once oxidized, the ammonia became the nitrates used for the production of nitrate fertilizer. Human population soared through the Green Revolution of the last half of the 20th century.

The world would look very different without the Haber-Bosch processThe world today would look much different without the Haber-Bosch process. Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba drives the point home saying, “without Haber-Bosch, 40 percent  of humanity wouldn’t be here.” Add to that the enormous use of chemical pesticides and high-yield agriculture is born.

In 1900 there were an estimated 29 million farmers in the United States, in 2008, 751,000*.  The century in between saw a transformation in agriculture that helped feed a flourishing human population. But we now face the consequences of high-yield, low-resilience agriculture hitting the limits of sustainability.

In an essay called Tackling the Oldest Environmental Problem (pdf) published in The Post Carbon Reader, Land Institute founder and president Wes Jackson addresses those consequences.

“I think we must recognize what the United Nations Millennium Ecosystems Assessment said,” Jackson writes, “that on a global basis, agriculture is the largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity.”

Fossil fuel agriculture – from barn to diesel tank and the loss of diversity

Before the mid-twentieth century, “the barn was the fuel tank of the farm,” says Jackson, “dispersing sunlight in the form of hay”. Below the hay was the straw that collected the natural nitrates from the animals used to fertilize the fields. Within the barn was the the energy and “nutrient-management scheme” for the farm. Through the late forties, the barn looked much as it had for centuries.

But by 1948 that began to change. Sunlight was now increasingly stored in the energy-dense diesel tank, “nutrients” in the anhydrous ammonia tank. The face and form of farming was quickly changing, driven by fossil fuel and industrial-scale nitrogen-fixing. The character of the new farm is reflected by Ezra Taft Benson, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1953 to 1961, who told small farmers to “get big, or get out.”

Jackson argues  that with the concentration of energy in larger farms came a loss of what he calls “cultural capacity”:

“I think there’s a general law: High energy destroys information, of a cultural as well as a biological variety. There is a loss of cultural capacity. And from 1750, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the graphical curve for the use of high-energy fossil carbon is increasingly steep. A ten-year-old today has been alive for a quarter of all oil ever burned. The twenty-two-year-old has been through 54 percent of all the oil ever burned.”

That gives one pause. Since my birth in the Eisenhower administration, I have been witness to and participant in the most energy ever consumed in the entire history of humanity. All in 52 years.

The Fall and the beginning of agriculture

But the “Fall,” says Jackson, came long before Haber-Bosch and the Green Revolution. All the way back 10,000 years or more to the Zagros Mountains of western Iran, with the successful planting of the first annual wheat crop. With that beginning came an engineered ecosystem contrary to how nature “does landscape”. A dominance of annuals planted in monoculture led to civilization – and our break with nature.

The difference between annual wheat and perennial wheat lay in the root, unseen and “forgotten”. Perennials dig deeper into the soil, “holding the ecological capital as tenaciously as possible.”  Annuals, with their shorter roots, “leak,” leading to soil erosion and wasted “capital”.

Water runoff from even a no-till farm has three times the nitrogen deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. Annuals do not manage resources well.

We’ve been able to get away with it for many millennium, all the way up to barely a century ago. Now we are faced with steadily degrading topsoil and dead zones offshore from agricultural runoff.

Modern agriculture relies on an unsustainable arrangement of energy and nutrient management.

The cost of energy density – hitting the wall

As Jackson puts it, even if you could double your supply of oil it “won’t buy you much time.” And the capacity for efficiency and renewable energy to sustain human demands will eventually become saturated, a limit beyond which more demand can’t be sustained. And there is no “technological substitute for soil and water,” without which little else matters anyway.

Based on Jackson’s law of high-energy destroying information, we are faced with a crisis of knowledge. As the inhabitants of the New World moved across the landscape, plowing prairies and cutting forests, we “didn’t know what we were doing, because we never knew what we were undoing.”

But we do know. Through the work of ecologists and evolutionary biologists, says Jackson, there is actually an abundance of information on how landscapes work, knowledge that the high-energy, high-yield economy has left us unable to access for the service of sustainable agriculture.

A new, perennial agricultural revolution

Our hunter gatherer days are long behind us – a distant past to which there is obviously no return. But Jackson argues that with the advent of agriculture, humanity grew “out of phase” with the natural world. Is our fall from Grace irredeemable? No, if we remember that we actually do know the right way forward.

Through his work at the Land Institute, Jackson advocates the perennialization of major crops. Jackson and his team at the Land Institute have 600 acres of land on which they can experiment, working with hybrids and perennial strains of wheat, some on untilled prairie. “Something closer to the original relationship,” says Jackson. In collaboration with Wendall Berry and Fred Kirschenmann of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Jackson proposed to Congress in 2009 a “fifty year farm bill.” The principal thrust of the bill is to perennialize the American farmscape, with hopes it will take root not only here in America, but around the world.

“The idea is use the current five-year bills as mileposts toward this goal,” writes Jackson. “Our fifty-year farm bill would protect soil from erosion, cut wasteful use of water, cut fossil-fuel dependence, eliminate toxic chemicals, manage nitrogen, reduce dead zones, and restore an agrarian way of life. It would do this largely by shifting the makeup of U.S. agriculture from being 80 percent annuals, as it is today, to 80 percent perennials in fifty years.”

Jackson and his colleagues believe that such a bill would be a revolution in agriculture and human sustainability no less important than any that has gone before. A Green Revolution for the 21st century.

*Source – Number of farmers :


Tom Schueneman is a regular contributor to Planetsave, and the founder of He is an advocate of the new energy economy, including helping people learn how to build their own solar panels.

Image credits: Stock.XCHNG, Engineer’s Guide

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