Preserving Our Roots
Agriculture in a changing climate
by Leigh Anderson
As mainstream agricultural practice drives the climate closer to catastrophe, researchers pursue alternative farming strategies.
On a quiet block of Smith Street in Brooklyn, nestled between the neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, rests a modest French bakery and café called Bien Cuit. The preservation of ancient craftsmanship is of utmost importance to the chef and owner, Zachary Golper, who allows his artisanal dough to ferment for up to 68 hours.
Coffee-sipping, spreadsheet-perusing Brooklynites are seated at small, modern wooden tables along an exposed brick wall, as light pours in from floor-to-ceiling windows at the front. The aroma of freshly baked treats mingles with the vaguely alcoholic scent of yeast. A glass display showcases the day’s bakes: honey and sea salt roule, cranberry ginger danish, and — if it’s Friday — challah.
For Golper, the ingredients that go into his creations are about much more than churning out golden-brown pastries and hearty loaves. Along with the tasty treats it provides, the act of baking itself has an integral role in the preservation of the environment and, indeed, humanity, although it is perhaps a few steps removed from the latter. “This conversation is going to be all over the place,” he told me, forcefully swirling flour through a sieve, “because that’s how this topic is.”
While hopping around the kitchen, from counter to oven to refrigerator to counter again, Golper discussed the pressing environmental need for farmland to maintain a green cover, that is, having some crop on the land year round, and stressed the importance of the transition from industrial to regenerative agriculture, which revitalizes farmland instead of depleting soil. Even certain types of organic farming right now, with their over-plowing and harsh rejection of weeds, he said, aren’t solving everything.
“You can make an argument that the Earth is warming due to the natural rise and fall of temperature over time that’s happened throughout history,” he said. “But it’s irresponsible to believe that human beings have played no part in increasing the rapidity of that warming process.”
Across the United States, the 60 million acres of wheat cultivated for use in bread products has long been grown for an industrial complex, known as the commodity system, that has produced largely nutritionless white flour at the cost of damaging farmland and perpetuating the loss of soil. Now, as climate change puts more pressure on growers to favor more sustainable agricultural practices, scientists and researchers are breeding new wheat and grain varieties for high yield, health benefits and low environmental impact. Their eventual aim is to replace the nation’s current commodity system with a more localized, region-based model. Two institutions are jump-starting this process, albeit with drastically different approaches: Washington State University’s The Bread Lab, and The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. And, while nutritional and environmental advantages are vital in the production of successful varieties of grain, the varieties also have to be economically beneficial for farmers, brewers, bakers and the consumers who buy from them.
Nearly 3,000 miles away from Golper’s bakery, Dr. Stephen Jones heads the Bread Lab at a satellite research center of Washington State University in the Skagit Valley, a temperate region bordering the Pacific Coast about 65 miles north of Seattle. The locals call it “Magic Skagit” for its climate, fertility and rich farmland. Steve Lyon, the university’s Director of Field Research, said the valley’s land and climate conditions enable harvests to come “within 10 percent of world record yields without even trying.” Every April, the valley is also home to one of the largest tulip festivals in the United States, which attracts tourists from nearly 100 countries.
Naturally, the region is an ideal site for Jones and his team to conduct their research as they pursue alternatives to commodity agriculture. Farming can give back to, rather than take away from, the land its farmers cultivate, and “healthy” doesn’t have to taste worse, he insists. “We’re interested in decentralizing what we do,” Jones said. “We are steering towards affordability, accessibility, approachability, and the fact that good food should actually cost less than really shitty food.”
Established in 2011, The Bread Lab is part of a 12,000 square-foot complex that also houses the King Arthur Flour Baking School. A storage garage contains 2,000 pounds of rye as well as 1,000 wheat varieties from 120 countries. The origins of some of the grains date back five hundred years. In neighboring Mount Vernon is one of WSU’s four research centers, which has a laboratory and greenhouse where 35 to 40 plant varieties grow, including the wheat varieties Pactole, Crusoe and Ranan. Different perennial and annual crops — from wheat varieties to fruit trees — are planted in test plots, both organic and conventional. Rolling farmland and a mountainous backdrop occupy most of the view for the drive from The Bread Lab to the extension center. About 15 farmers across the 80,000-acre valley work closely with WSU.
The Bread Lab’s work isn’t just isolated laboratory experiments; Jones is constantly in contact with bakers, including Golper, exchanging ideas, answering questions and sharing findings. The morning of March 19, Jones took three calls from bakers — two in Vermont and one in Australia.
Last year, Golper and Jones united at the Philly Chef Conference in Philadelphia, an event that hosts chefs, bakers, breeders and students to encourage building connections in the food industry. Golper shares Jones’s idea of decentralizing agriculture into smaller, microcosmic units that serve the communities of their respective regions, partnering with local bakers, chefs, brewers, distillers and the like. In recent years, phrases like “single origin,” “locally sourced” and “farm-to-table” have come to the forefront, as restaurateurs and consumers have begun paying more attention to where their ingredients come from.
Down the road from The Bread Lab is Cairnspring Mills, a small scale flour mill that prides itself on using the best wheat varieties and working with farmers they know. Tatum Nolan, the chief operating officer, is bullish on the prospects for changing the way people view flour; since products like beer and coffee have gone artisanal, so too can flour, he thinks. “Probably the biggest effect that we can have,” he said, “is to introduce customers to the idea that flour has flavor and it has a story.”
Jones went further. “I think an important point is we’re not looking at changing industrial ag,” he said. “We’re looking at replacing it.” Although the main goal in his research is to reduce the possibility of crop failure, Jones said, an added benefit is the positive effect on the landscape from the variation and the extra nutrients it puts into the soil. New varieties have the potential to improve efficiency while producing high yields. For example, Skagit-1109, the lab’s most recently released variety, yields between 140 and 150 bushels per acre. At 60 pounds per bushel, it produces four times the yield of mainstream wheat grown in the state of Kansas, where agriculture accounts for the use of 87.5 percent of the state’s land.
Every year, Jones and his team breed hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of different wheat varieties. Their hope is to develop a variety that yields high, stands up well, and is resistant to diseases. Unlike industrial agricultural companies that patent the varieties they develop for exclusive use, Jones emphasized that every advancement the university makes is public domain, so farmers can use any successful variety the lab breeds.
To breed, test and release a variety can take 10 to 12 years. In a straight cross, one parent grain is bred with another, and the first generation progeny becomes a hybrid. But only that first generation after initial crossing, a process known as hybridization, is actually a hybrid. Unlike hybrid crops like corn, which is re-crossed from two parents each growing season, wheat pollinates itself for generations to become a variety. After self-pollination, the following generations are no longer hybrids. The variety is then tested over the course of several years for the aforementioned desirable traits. Skagit-1109 is an example of a straight cross, which was initially a cross of Pactole, a French variety, with a northwestern variety. It was the ninth cross made by WSU’s researchers in 2011, thus its name.
The process can be like a mind game, Lyon explained. “You try not to be biased towards wheat that you like and have high hopes for,” he said. Two or three times in his career, he has worked on a variety for a decade, only for it to fall victim to disease in the final stages of experimentation. But in a way it was fortunate, he said; researchers would rather a crop fail for them than fail once it’s been passed on to the farmers.
The majority of farmers in the Skagit Valley grow wheat as a rotation crop to discharge nutrients into the soil that will help their tulips, potatoes and spinach seeds flourish. They grow wheat not because they want to, Jones explained, but because they have to. So, he said, it only makes sense for them to grow a plant that yields enough crop to make it worthwhile.
Having different crops planted year round helps prevent the loss of soil, which, as Dr. Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, explains is — unbeknownst to many — a nonrenewable resource. It is, in fact, just as nonrenewable as oil, he said, “and of course more important.”
As we drove through the outskirts of the central Kansas town, Jackson instructed me to look left, where rows of dull-colored mobile homes lined a fence that ran alongside Interstate 135. “The entrance to a once-proud city,” he announced. The residents of these homes, he said, likely worked for around $35,000 a year at the city’s pizza production plant — a vast white building that churns out upwards of 1 million Schwan’s, Tony’s, and Red Baron frozen pies daily.
And a whole lot of flour goes into most of those million pies. “You wanna talk about sustainable agriculture,” Jackson said, “this is what we’re up against.” A ride through Salina will prove just how ingrained the commodity agriculture system is into American society, harkening back to the early years of industrialization. Even near the downtown area, where the tallest “skyscraper” rises up just 10 stories, grain elevators — where grain is stored — soar high above a smattering of small town shops. The largest grain elevator in Kansas, a towering structure of massive, vertical concrete cylinders, is located on the western side of Salina. It belongs to the wholesaler Cargill Ag, and on a Tuesday morning in late March, its welcome sign at the entrance boasted 1,229 consecutive days without a reportable injury. Grain is highly, highly explosive.
Further along, we drove by dilapidated farmhouses, where cattle sloshed about in muddy pens with shoddy fencing that, Jackson said, the owners cannot afford to fix. Left-behind, ignored and dejected are terms typically used to describe the block of working class people in the so-called flyover states, the successors of self-respecting farmers who now find themselves victims of a system that is failing them — and failing the planet. It’s a system that The Land Institute wants to flip on its head. While the research at Washington State University is focused on the immediate, The Land Institute is thinking about the centuries to come. That means bringing agriculture back to its roots, and one answer, their scientists think, is perennial polycultures.
Founded in 1976 by Jackson, now 82, and his wife, Dana Jackson, The Land Institute today has around 25 researchers, working to promote ecological intensification, which its website defines as “harnessing ecological processes to supplant the need for commercial inputs like fertilizers and pesticides.” In polycultures, various nutrients are passed through the soil, acting as a natural form of nitrogen fixation and thus eliminating the need for harmful chemicals, which cause eutrophication and other forms of ecosystem contamination. Polycultures also provide protection against diseases, pests and extreme weather. In a monoculture, a disease or a cold spell could wipe out the entire crop population. But with different species planted together, a farmer doesn’t face the same level of risk in losing his entire field.
Unlike annual wheat, perennial grains grow back each year, limit human intervention such as plowing and tilling, decrease soil erosion and imitate a natural prairie structure with many different plants growing at once. In our current agricultural system, which relies heavily on annual monocultures, soil loss is a severe problem. Jackson discusses this at length in his 1980 book New Roots for Agriculture. On 84 percent of the country’s farms, he wrote, farmers lose 5 to 6 tons of soil per acre each year. When soil isn’t held in place by root systems year round, it can easily blow away, into oceans or rivers. And once it’s gone, it’s not coming back.
The Land Institute’s Wauhob Prairie, set near the entrance of the property alongside a bison pasture, provides an example of the ecological structure their scientists are pursuing. The prairie allows a mixture of perennial plants to thrive, and has never been plowed — just as nature intended it.
The domestication of perennials is a new phenomenon, a practice our ancestors couldn’t achieve because perennials — unlike annuals — need to outcross, or breed with non-relatives, to avoid mutations, Jackson said. He attributed the modern solution to “a better knowledge of genetics” and “modern computational power” that allows scientists to detect where mutations will occur.
In 2003, the institute began its breeding program for a cross of intermediate wheatgrass and annual wheat, known as Kernza — the first new grain in 4,000 years and the first perennial grain crop ever. Though initial research by the USDA and the Rodale Institute paved the way for Kernza’s development, The Land Institute is credited with being the crop’s birthplace. With a root system that reaches nearly three times the depth of annual wheat plants, Kernza’s abilities to hold soil in place, regulate nutrients and potentially adapt to climatic changes makes its environmental impact desirable.
In one of the Land Institute’s greenhouses, Lee Dehaan, the lead Kernza scientist, was studying the water conservation capabilities of the grain in hopes of decreasing the crop’s high water usage. A portion of the greenhouse was filled with relatives of the Kernza plants that performed best out in the fields, as the best performers are selected for further breeding. Selection is based on a number of traits, including seed size, yield potential and harvestable yield. The high water usage remains a problem, but at the moment, it’s less of an issue than increasing Kernza’s yield.
Kernza’s low yield is a cause for concern for Jones of the Bread Lab in Washington, who is skeptical of over-reliance on perennial grains to solve agriculture. If you’re looking to hold soil, he said, “You might as well plant oak trees.” But at The Land Institute, researchers say it’s a work in progress — and may take decades to make a significant dent in the crop market. Nonetheless, it’s a work in progress that they’re confident in. The Land Institute’s president, Fred Iutzi, acknowledges that it may take 50 to 70 years before perennial agricultural really takes hold globally, and at least a decade or two before it makes even a noteworthy dent, the Kernza beer produced at Salina’s own Blue Skye Brewery notwithstanding. Still, said Dr. Tim Crews, The Land Institute’s Director of Research and Lead Ecologist, the yield of Kernza has jumped from 2.5 to 3 milligrams per seed at the beginning, up to 8 to 10 milligrams per seed today.
As of now, perennials only encompass 20 percent of US agriculture, and annuals, the other 80 percent. The Land Institute wants to reverse those two stats over the next five decades. In 2009, The Land Institute took its proposed 50-Year Farm Bill to Washington, DC, where they presented it to Congress and where it quickly died. But now, in light of the recent push for a Green New Deal, spearheaded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the institute is redoing the bill in hopes of it moving forward this time around. They are revising an already revised July 2017 edition of the proposal which calls for the perennialization of agriculture, a reduction in toxic chemicals including pesticides, and cuts to fossil fuel dependency, and offers a plan for the implementation of 10 consecutive five-year farm bills that would achieve these goals by 2067. If the proposal were to be endorsed this year — “by the Secretary of Agriculture, the President, Congress, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and citizens,” as the bill requests — the end year would move back two years to 2069.
But for the researchers at WSU and the Bread Lab, 50 years — or maybe more — is too much time to wait for change, especially as new reports continue to emerge, indicating we have 12 years to take drastic action against climate change or face extreme consequences. Jones stressed again that there is no point in developing a crop that is good for the environment but not good for farmers or buyers — another concern pointed at Kernza. He wants the pillars of The Bread Lab’s mission — approachability, affordability and accessibility — to take effect sooner rather than later.
“So often we see these boutique things — heirloom tomatoes for 15 bucks a pound or whatever, or heirloom wheat or heritage or ancient,” he said, rattling off buzzwords that tend to appeal to environmentally conscious — and also wealthier — consumers. “To me, there’s a lot of elitism in that. That’s helping basically one farmer and, in many cases, one chef. That doesn’t help 99 percent of the people.”
Helping that 99 percent is what The Bread Lab is striving to do. That’s why its staff created the Approachable Loaf, a whole wheat bread loaf made with Skagit-1109 that’s sliced up and wrapped in a thin plastic bag — much like what you would find at a grocery store. It’s exactly what people are used to. Part of their goal in improving agriculture is improving nutrition, and Jones wants consumers to know that healthy doesn’t have to mean artisanal, expensive or lacking flavor. Bread, he says, shouldn’t be a luxury item.
Poor nutritional options contribute to unsustainable agricultural practices, and white flour is one of the main culprits. Unlike pure whole wheat flour, which has three components — bran, germ and endosperm — white flour only contains endosperm, which has none of the fiber and misses out on the oils and nutrients provided by the germ. When it travels through the commodity system, whole wheat flour is usually stripped of the germ as well — to contain only endosperm and bran — so as to increase its shelf life. Thus, most whole wheat isn’t actually “whole” wheat at all. Jones said that of all the wheat used for white flour in the United States, only 70 percent of it actually becomes flour, leaving the other 30 percent to be used for animal feed, growing mediums for mushroom plants or pods for pod plants. From Jones’s perspective, this is virtually the same as discarding it. Even though that 30 percent is reused, he said, it is not a sustainable practice. “You can feed animals feed that was developed for them as opposed to ‘possibly okay’ for them,” he said. “And making pods for pod plants out of it — that’s a waste of protein and iron and zinc and all the micronutrients that are in there. Wherever the bran and germ are going, it’s not something it was designed for; it’s a compromised use.”
Part of the research at The Bread Lab is focused on increasing extraction rates, which is about getting the most out of the wheat kernel. While the extraction rate for white flour is around 70 percent, that of whole wheat flour is 100 percent, meaning none of the kernel is wasted. The goal is to get as close to 100 percent as possible, while still getting a product that is flavorful and easy for bakers to work with. The predictability of white flour is one reason for its widespread use, but there’s more to it than that.
White flour has a fraught history. Thousands of years ago, white flour became the flour of the elite, Jones said, because it was easy to see that there were no insects, dirt or animal droppings contaminating it. But a little over a century ago, the so-called cleanliness of white flour took on a new meaning, particularly in the United States. “It was felt that brown anything was inferior,” Jones said, an attitude that prevailed during the eugenics movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s in America. The movement’s reactionary, racist agenda aimed to “sterilize” society of poor and minority populations, while promoting “desirable” European traits.
“White flour, red meat and blue blood make the tricolor flag of conquest,” wrote the physician Woods Hutchinson in McClure’s Magazine in 1906. White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf describes Hutchinson’s reasoning: “one need only compare strapping, tall Americans with specimens from any rice- or brown bread-eating nation. In strength, valor, and intelligence, the American surpassed them all.” White was considered pure, both in skin tone and in flour, as Americans tried to separate themselves — and their diets — from those they considered foreign, second-class, or “other.”
Since then, national attitudes on white bread have shifted, as knowledge about nutrition has increased over time. Nutritionists now largely agree that white bread is indeed nutritionally inferior to whole wheat, but the continued popularity of white bread is something Jones and like researchers must keep grappling with.
Leaving as little as possible to waste, keeping nutrients in the flour, and creating a familiar product were key in the invention of Approachable Loaf, which has just six ingredients. For reference, a loaf of Wonder Bread has around 30, many of which are not pronounceable, or as Jones puts it, “not food.” Though the team at The Bread Lab is still making improvements to the Approachable Loaf to increase its shelf life — which is currently around 7 days — several bakeries are already carrying it, including Prager Bros. in Carlsbad, California and Jane The Bakery in San Francisco.
“We’re not changing people; we’re meeting them where they are,” Jones said. “If you like soft, squishy bread in a plastic wrapper that’s sliced, we’re going to give you that, but it’s going to have 20 to 30 fewer ingredients. We can spend a lot of time — and I did — in fighting the system, thinking ‘I’m going to change commodity or ‘Big Ag’ or Monsanto.’ I’m not. Our energy is better spent in terms of offering an alternative path.”
Nolan, of Cairnspring Mills, showed that forging that path is tricky, especially since sustainability tends to decline as scale increases. “We can produce in a year what a commodity mill can produce in a day,” he said. “There used to be 24,000 mills in America about 100 years ago, there’s 184 today. So tremendous consolidation, and they’re all just racing to be the largest because, at that sort of scale, the cost of production is really, really cheap, as long as you’re using a lot of the plant’s capacity.”
While Cairnspring is not directly affiliated with The Bread Lab, the two work together closely because of their proximity to each other and the ideals they share. So how do they plan to make a sustainability project more expansive without falling into the same trap that scaling up has caused time and time again?
“We think the model is replicable as opposed to scaling up,” Jones said. The purpose is not to get Skagit-1109 growing in Kansas, where it wouldn’t thrive anyway; it’s about getting similar systems to operate in different regions, based around the crops that work for the regional climate and by linking together farmers, millers and bakers to stimulate the local economy and promote the sale of local goods.
Nolan explained some of the downsides of the commodity system: “Grain changes hands a hundred times before it’s turned into flour and before it’s bought,” he said. “And in that exchange of hands, it’s blended tens, hundreds of times with tens of thousands of other farms’ grain. So traceability in the commodity system is just really challenging.” With a more localized system, he said, wheat can go straight from the farms to the mills to the consumers.
Replicating this regional model is something Jackson endorses as well. “We know regions vary, and so what we’re after,” he said, quoting the biologist John Todd, “are elegant solutions predicated on the uniqueness of place.”
In Wardensville, West Virginia, Josh Stainthorp, the farm director of Wardensville Garden Market, is promoting a similar vision. A non-profit established in 2016, the market and bakery was launched as an initiative to create educational and economic opportunities for Appalachian youth while emphasizing the importance of environmental preservation. Though set on 100 acres, only three to four acres are actually farmed, which is consistent with a standard Stainthorp upholds: “Farm the best, conserve the rest.”
Originally from Georgia, Stainthorp speaks with a casual southern drawl. Clad in Wardensville Garden Market attire, sporting a scruffy beard, and hanging on to a thermosful of coffee, he eagerly hopped into an ATV to give a tour of the farm, driving across muddy terrain down to the Cacapon River on the property’s border.
But most of what there is to see is close to the entrance: two plots of farmland planted with a polyculture of cover crops: clover, oats, rye and barley. It was early March, and the farmers were preserving the soil before the growing season. Behind the plots were greenhouses and cold storage units. And right at the front of the property is a bakery that serves up loaves of bread and warm cinnamon rolls. The farm is currently certified naturally grown and is pending the more stringent certified organic status, as it awaits inspection. As a non-profit, Wardensville funnels all of its profits back into its program and farm.
To Stainthorp, farming is a form of artistry, and should be treated as such. On the phone prior to my visit, he lamented the looming climate catastrophe. “I do think that absolutely we should be screaming into the void,” he said. “I think that having pockets of people figuring out ways to do it better will probably be the only way that we’ll make it through.” Standing on the edge of one of the plots, he expressed a similar sentiment: The climate is just so difficult to predict — hello random 80-degree day in the winter! — that it’s hard to know exactly what to do about it. But it is certainly getting warmer, he said.
West Virginia serves as a paradigm for the legislative inaction surrounding climate policy across the country, illustrating the larger congressional stalemate on a micro level. The state’s governing body is split, and generally noncommittal, on the issue of climate change. Every county in the state went red for Donald Trump in 2016, as he defeated Hillary Clinton by a margin of 41.7 percent. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate, has notably backed Republicans on many pivotal issues including Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which may be partially attributable to his effort to keep his seat in a largely Republican state.
Though Manchin has acknowledged climate change as real and dangerous, he has not supported the efforts of progressive democrats, and voted against the Green New Deal resolution in March. In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post, which Manchin co-authored with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican from Alaska, the two called for realistic and bipartisan action on climate change, denouncing progressive calls for “unattainable measures” in combating the climate crisis, while also criticizing hardline Republicans “who want to do nothing.”
Both West Virginia senators, Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, supported President Trump’s 2017 decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. While Capito’s statement expressed staunch rejection of the deal, criticizing former President Obama for his “anti-coal agenda,” Manchin’s statement was slightly more down the middle, advocating for a “cleaner energy future,” thought he still insisted that the Paris Agreement was not the way to achieve it.
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is a billionaire owner of a coal mining enterprise who ran for office as a Democrat and declared himself a Republican after winning. Most of his campaign centered around saving the coal industry and he has recently been embroiled in a legal controversy over the safety of his mines. In the past, he has made remarks indicating his skepticism of climate change, including in 2016 when he told The Register Herald, “Until we have really accurate data to prove (that humans contribute), I don’t think we need to blow our legs off on a concept.”
Stainthorp, living in a state where politicians have largely failed to uphold his interests, has an outlook that understandably wavers between optimistic and bleak. But although the state’s political climate may not be ideal for the environment, he is seeing an increase in the number of private citizens who want to take action on their own.
“I think that we are seeing more and more small sustainable farms pop up,” he said. “I don’t think we necessarily need to replace industrial agriculture, but just maintaining an option that’s not industrial agriculture is really important.” If more farms can be created, he said, “we do have hope for a future where there are better, healthier, and more local options.” Yet when asked if he thought the entire country would grasp the urgency of climate change, he responded, “I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.”
Back at The Land Institute, Iutzi expressed a similar sentiment. When the New Deal was set in motion during the Great Depression, he explained, there was a “consensus that we had a crisis.” But as for the climate crisis and the push for a Green New Deal, he said, “You’d think we’d be at a global consensus, but we’re not.”
An article Iutzi co-authored in February for Resilience calls for support for rural communities and challenges the notion that urban environments are the way forward. It’s more accurate to say rural Americans are being exploited than to say they are lagging behind, he writes. He continues on to say that rural America needs to be repopulated so that there are more farmers to take on the sustainable agriculture projects the region needs.
But rural America isn’t the only region that has The Land Institute’s attention; it has partners and collaborators across the world. From China to Canada and Sweden to sub-Saharan Africa, perennial grain programs are sprouting up, whether it be for perennial rice, sorghum or silphium. Crews of the Land Institute said that in the Yunnan province of southern China, the perennial rice program has experienced astounding success: “There’s been three years of two harvests per year that match annual rice production,” he said. “And that’s crazy. It’s never happened, ever in the history of the planet.” As perennial yields continue to increase, he said, there’s more research toward genetic stability, in making sure the crops grow back the same each year.
About 7,000 acres in the Yunnan province are now used for cultivating perennial rice — which was recently released for commercialization in late 2018 — in comparison with the mere test plots it took up just a half decade ago. In sub-Saharan Africa, strides are being made with perennial pigeon pea and perennial sorghum, planted closely together in a system known as intercropping. In Scandinavia, researchers are working on perennial barley; in France, Kernza; and other projects are moving forward in Turkey, Israel, Palestine and Argentina.
None of the programs abroad is as large as those in North America, Crews said, and even those in North America are not as widespread as scientists at The Land Institute would like. As the leader in perennial crop research worldwide, The Land Institute only receives a combined $5 million in funding annually from the USDA, non-profit organizations and universities, in comparison to the billions funneled into annual crop research. Iutzi said that for the Land Institute’s vision to become a full reality, their funding would have to double. Still, The Land Institute’s resources are greater than they’ve ever been.
Crews said he grasps why there isn’t a groundswell of popular support for grains like Kernza, considering its lower-than-desired yield. “But the reality is,” he said, “the whole project is moving so much faster than 10,000 years ago, presumably when they started out trying to domesticate a new crop. We’ve been doing this for, you know, 10 to 20 years. That’s nothing.”
In the age of climate change, perennials do pose a concern, though: What if they grow well for a certain amount of time, but don’t adapt to a changing climate? “All of them may be vulnerable to some extreme years that any of these places might experience,” Crews said. But that doesn’t mean they’re any more vulnerable to climate change than annual plants are, and in some cases they may be more resilient. “The way in which the crops are affected by climate change conditions is also going to be a case by case, crop by crop, soil type by soil type issue.”
Crews emphasizes that the objective is not “a perennial version of the Midwest,” where only a few varieties dominate most of the landscape. Creating and maintaining plant diversity is critical.
A loss in plant diversity and species variety has impacted countries across Europe since after World War II, when agriculture underwent rapid hyper-centralization. Jones of The Bread Lab has undertaken projects to revitalize grain economies in places like Finland, Crete and the islands off of Scotland by reintroducing varieties, increasing diversity in the fields, and showing farmers in those regions how to malt, mill and distill. Europe, having suffered massive deforestation and soil loss, has experienced decreased diversity and increased reliance on chemicals and fertilizers. For the United States, Europe’s broken agricultural model serves as a cautionary tale.
In Crews’ view, the fossil fuel industry is entering a bottleneck that will “transform industrial agriculture, such that it comes begging to those who are working on ecological intensification for ways of growing food that are not so profoundly resource-expensive and wasteful.”
Every region brings about its own climate change concerns, whether it be sustainability education, nutrition, revitalization, or adaptability. Ruth DeFries conducts research on the nutritional impacts of wheat, rice and nutri-cereals in India, and also serves as the faculty chair of the Earth Institute of Columbia University. “The issue isn’t ‘What do you do for some climate change x,’” she said, “but ‘What do you do to prepare for a world where there’s more variability?’”
Golper, during a visit to Sacsayhuamán, the ancient Inca capital just outside of Cusco, Peru, noticed that in the homes of many families, guinea pigs patrol the floors. They act as “vacuum cleaners” for discarded food scraps, pets for children to play with and, on Sunday night, are served for dinner.
In the staircase-like fields carved into the Andes, terrace farming, a practice dating back centuries, allows the nutrients in water to flow down from the highest terrace to the lowest, fertilizing the entire plot. “It’s a microcosm of sustainability,” Golper said. “But there’s something to learn there.” And thinking about agriculture microcosmically seems to be the answer in finding a way to bypass the industrial system.
Back in Brooklyn, the sky began to darken and patrons of Bien Cuit shut their laptops and prepared to head home for the evening. In the kitchen, Golper hovered over containers of melted brown butter while peeling hard boiled eggs, as our discussion came to a close.
He explained that the strides these researchers make thousands of miles away could affect everything he does. As a baker, the price of flour determines whether he can stay in business. Even if researchers breed a perfect crop that produces a high yield, tastes good, and is better for soil, it has to be inexpensive enough for him to bake goods that buyers can afford to buy.
And as it always tends to, Golper said, “It all comes back to money.”