Have we been doing agriculture all wrong?

It’s an important question to ask these days, as questions about the sustainability of traditional farming bulk large.

We need to double food productivity and streamline distribution networks if we’re to meet the growing needs of global population set to eclipse ten billion by 2050. Agriculture’s huge carbon footprint is accelerating climate change, which will in turn present farmers with new challenges. Overreliance on irrigation is depleting our aquifers at an unsustainable rate. Chemical applications continue to degrade the environment and cause harm.

To save agriculture, we might need a fundamental reboot. But where do we even start?

Wes Jackson thinks he knows. The founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, believes radical problems deserve radical solutions. To find an adequate cure, one has to diagnose the problem correctly. That means getting at the roots of the ecological crisis.

Jackson contends the challenges facing today’s farmers has roots extending back ten millennia, to the disruption we now call the agricultural revolution.

We tend to think of modern farming as a natural behavior, but from the perspective of the earth, there is much that’s unnatural and disruptive.

Consider the normal rhythm of agriculture. Clear the land. Till it. Plant seeds. Fertilize. Add pesticide. Supplement rainfall with irrigation networks. Harvest. Rinse. Repeat.

We can become so used to this seasonal rhythm that we miss how revolutionary it is when considered from the vantage point of land use. Each step transforms the landscape, requiring new inputs of energy and resources. That “natural” process takes a lot of work–and is fraught with devastating environmental consequences.

Only a solution that addresses the roots of this agricultural churn can fix the problems we’re facing.

The seeds of a solution, thinks Jackson, just might lie in kernza.

Taking the baton from the European organization Rodale, the Land Institute began developing kernza, a forage wheatgrass, in 2003. Selective breeding and ag development helped refine the grain for the market. 

Unlike traditional grains, kernza is a perennial plant. It sends down deep roots, and although it doesn’t flourish in winter, this hardy plant stays put in the field. When springtime returns, it starts growing again.

This rhythm fundamentally transforms what farming looks like. Gone is the intensive toil of clearing, planting, weeding, fertilizing, and spraying pesticide. A prairie grass, kernza feels right at home in the Great Plains states. It’s low-maintenance and high-yield. It doesn’t require high water inputs, and its deep, fast-growing root systems compete favorably with those of weeds.

More importantly, it reduces ecological damages to a vanishing point. It doesn’t require clearing or tillage, which hasten erosion and release carbon. It’s not hard to stop using pesticide and fertilizer when you’re growing this kind of hardy plant.

All that’s attractive, but who’s ready to join the revolution if it’s not marketable?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for kernza has been popular taste, but even here, it’s had a strong showing. The nutty, rich flavor of kernza has won over its share of skeptics. More recently, kernza enthusiasts won a coup when General Mills, the manufacturer of breakfast cereal blockbusters like Wheaties and Cheerios announced they were developing a kernza-based cereal. 

Overhauling a millennia-old agricultural approach will take time. But it’s nice to think that, in the meantime, the breakfast cereal we choose could help save the world.