Changing the World, in Due Time
Nature, the eminent science weekly, recently ran a news feature on “Five crop researchers who could change the world.” One of those researchers is Jerry Glover PhD ’01, who is now an agroecologist with the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.
The Land Institute is at the forefront of the sustainable agriculture movement with its efforts to shift significant production of grain and other food crops from annual to perennial. Both the payoffs and the challenges of such an effort are huge.
Glover’s graduate work at WSU involved assessing the impacts of apple production systems on soil, crop, and environmental quality, disease and pest management and financial performance. His graduate advisor was John Reganold, with whom he recently published an article on perennial crops in Scientific American.
Benefits of perennial cropping are many. Even the most aggressive annual crops, such as wheat, have scant opportunity to put down roots. Annual tillage required to produce such crops makes the soil vulnerable to wind and water erosion. Perennial crops would also require far less fuel for production as well as less fertilizer and pesticides. Less carbon is released into the atmosphere. And finally, perennial crops encourage biodiversity.
Such a shift in production obviously requires a comparable shift in thinking—thinking about time, for one thing.
In the past, says Glover, there were conceptual obstacles to planning such a shift. “If you have a crisis,” he says, “people put money into band-aids a lot of times. But if you start talking, this is a crisis that needs a long-term solution, it’s going to take ten years, twenty years, or longer to develop fully… then we don’t have that time.”
People are coming around, he says.
But then there’s the biological difficulty in convincing an annual plant that it does not want to die once it has formed it seeds. One would think that such an effort might stretch out beyond the lifetime of the researcher or breeder himself.
“I don’t agree,” says Glover. When the Land Institute’s efforts began, there was a caution on the part of founder Wes Jackson and others. At the time, he “didn’t really see a way to get it achieved very quickly,” says Glover. “But the plant breeding programs here really started only in 1998-99, with the arrival of Stan Cox.
“In that amount of time, we see windows of opportunity, where it could come much sooner [than anticipated] for some of these crops.
“Perennial corn probably isn’t going to cover much of the landscape by the time I die. But something like perennial wheat or the domestication of wheat grass, that could be significant in a relatively short amount of time.”
Work on perennial wheat parallels similar efforts in Australia and at WSU, by wheat breeder Stephen Jones. Jones has been working on a perennial wheat for several years, seeking a crop could hold down the volatile soil of eastern Washington. Currently, in the drier wheat-growing areas, farmers will leave ground fallow periodically in order to conserve moisture and control weeds.
However, the dry, powdery soil of the Columbia Basin, composed of volcanic ash and glacial silt, blows easily. The fine soil particles are not simply annoying, but a possible health risk, exacerbated by the fact that Spokane’s population is directly downwind from the dryland wheat-growing region.
“I’ve been trying to talk someone into developing perennial wheat since the 1960s,” says Jim Moore, a Kahlotus farmer and former head of the Washington Wheat Commission. Read more in Washington State Magazine
“Vogel [an earlier WSU wheat breeder] told me they couldn’t get enough yield out of it. I don’t care about that. I want something to hold my soil in place.”
Back in Kansas, Glover and his colleagues are also working toward perennial sunflower, sorghum, and, with a program in China, perennial wheat. The most immediate prospect, says Glover, is a perennial legume, the Illinois bundleflower, which could possibly be used as a soybean substitute for feeding hogs.