Plants are not accountants, and heaven can wait: perennial grains revisited

It’s been about a year since I published my article on perennial grain crops in the journal Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems1 so maybe it’s time to revisit this teasing topic. Other reasons to return to it…well, I seem to be in the midst of a series of posts on things that are leading us astray from the true path of sustainable agriculture so why not toss another brick onto the barbecue before turning to something more constructive? Then there’s yet another new article, this time in Permaculture Magazine, heralding the imminent solution to the world’s problems once the Land Institute has completed its work on this earth2. Plus ça change. And finally there’s what might be termed blogger’s privilege: for it is a truth universally acknowledged that a disputatious middle-aged man in possession of a blog must be in need of a hobby horse that he can (c)harmlessly ride every now and again when the mood is upon him.

So, to summarise what’s at issue: Take a look at your local wild flora – it mostly comprises perennial plants, which grow prodigiously without anybody destroying the soil through tillage, or going to the trouble of adding fertiliser, pesticides and so forth. Trouble is, it doesn’t produce much to eat. Now take a look at your local arable agriculture – it mostly comprises annual plants, which provide plenty to eat but often at the cost of soil-eating tillage and a load of fertiliser, pesticides and other inputs. Obvious solution: breed perennial varieties of edible arable crops, and you get the best of both worlds.

There’s a problem though. Plant breeders have been trying this for well over a century, and the results aren’t much to write home about. They’ve managed to breed plants with good perenniality but poor edible seed yield, and plants with good edible seed yield but poor perenniality. Plants with good perenniality and good edible seed yield, though? Not so much. Patience, patience, say the plant breeders at the Land Institute, probably the world’s premier perennial grain research organisation. This is a project of ‘deep permaculture’3. Don’t expect it to bear fruit overnight. But expect it to bear fruit eventually – and when it does, we’ll be able to grow soil-conserving, self-fertilising, pest-resistant, perennial grain polycultures that yield just as much as our present annual grain cultures, but without all the environmental costs associated with them.

Nice. Except I think it’s a fantasy. Not that fantasies are necessarily bad things. I think it’s good that the Land Institute are working on this stuff. I doubt that they’ll find their perennial grain holy grail, but you never know, they just might. And even if they don’t, they’ll probably come up with other useful things. So more power to them. Except that…well, despite being every permaculturist’s favourite scientists, including mine not so long ago, I’ve fallen a little bit out of love with the folks at the Land Institute because…because…OK, out with it…because they’re so damned dismissive of essentially every other approach that anyone tries to take towards a sustainable agriculture, and because they’re so unscientifically cocksure about the correctness of their approach despite their unimpressive results to date that they feel the need to fill the pages of periodicals both scientific and popular with more blandishments about what they’re going to achieve than any solid information about what they actually have achieved.

I’ve written at some length elsewhere about why breeding high-yielding perennial grains is such a tall order4, and I’m not going to go into the details again here. But, prompted by the latest bout of enthusiasm for perennial grains in Permaculture Magazine, I’d like to present brief arguments from five perspectives as to why I struggle to find a great deal of enthusiasm for what the Land Institute are doing.

1. Plants are not accountants: an argument from plant ecology

Perennial grain breeder Peggy Wagoner published a comprehensive review of achievements in the field to date in 19905, in which she stated “the resources available for seed production in a perennial appear to be less than in an annual.” Those seventeen words pretty much encapsulate my take on the issue. Wagoner, I think, is right, and I’m doubtful that any amount of genetic twiddling by plant breeders is ultimately going to overcome that basic truth.

Land Institute scientists take a different view, and indeed flatly contradicted Wagoner’s contention in a 2007 book chapter6. The debate has been a largely theoretical rather than an empirical one, focusing on whether it’s conceptually plausible for a perennial grass to produce as much edible starchy matter in the form of seeds as an annual grass while maintaining perenniality. Producing energy-rich seeds is, after all, energetically costly to the plant, and so is producing perennating structures that enable it to survive year after year.

The Land Institute have a fancy scientific rationale for their view, and a regular workaday one – neither of which I personally find convincing. The fancy one has to do with quantitative genetic trade-off theory – a red herring in my opinion, for reasons outlined in my article. In their response to the article7, the Land Institute authors ignored this part of my critique altogether…suggesting to me that perhaps I’m onto something. But I hope someday I’ll get some feedback on it from a neutral party with a stronger grounding in genetics than me. The workaday one, repeated in the Permaculture Magazine article, is that – being better established from the get-go – perennial plants are able to harvest more sunlight over the course of the year than annuals, and are therefore able to “pay the energetic cost of perennation”8.

That sounds plausible, even if it’s doubtful that perennials always harvest more light than annuals. But metaphors can mislead. Plants aren’t accountants who check their bank accounts at the end of the financial year, pay their debts, and then spend off the balance as they wish. They’re organisms, like us, who are pursuing longer term projects. And the long-term project of a perennial plant is to keep on living rather than punting scarce resources on reckless acts of maximal reproduction. When the firm has had a good year and everyone’s flush with their bonus, the perennials may have an extra half glass of wine at the Christmas party but they’re not going to join in with the carousing annuals, waving their wads at the barman and ending up on the carpet at the end of the evening. Doubtless plant breeders can mix things up and introduce a bit more of that annual swagger into their perennial charges. If things go well, they may even get both good seed yield and good perennation for a year or two. But I suspect that sooner or later, and probably sooner, this new breed of wad-waving perennials will end up on the carpet along with their annual buddies. That, essentially, is what Wagoner reported empirically, and despite the Land Institute’s outright dismissal of her analysis, and of mine, I’ve not yet seen any very convincing results to suggest otherwise (I’ve only been able to access the abstract from the Land Institute’s latest publication on a lack of correlation between seed yield and (short-term) survival in Sorghum bicolor x S. halepense crosses but, as with an earlier study9, it seems unclear what longer-term survival is and whether allometry is controlled).

2. Never walk alone: the argument from history

But maybe I’m overdoing this whole annual versus perennial growth habit thing. The Land Institute folks certainly think so, writing in response to my article that “There are as many life history patterns as there are species”7. Except there aren’t. Not really. I think plant ecologist Phil Grime is more on the money when he says that the outcomes of natural selection are restricted to a rather narrow range of basic alternatives in life-history, resource allocation and physiology10. Which is basically my point, and which explains Wagoner’s finding. I’m glossing a lot of detail here, which can be found in this blog post and in my original article1, but that’s the long and the short of it.

Suppose the Land Institute were right, though. Suppose it’s true that there are as many life history patterns as there are species. Then you’d surely expect to find some long-lived herbaceous perennials somewhere in the world with high allocations to starchy, edible seeds, and you’d surely expect that over the 10,000+ year history of human agriculture somebody would have run across them at some point and incorporated them into the human agricultural package. But it doesn’t seem to have happened. In their reply to my article, the most compelling counter-evidence to my arguments marshalled by the Land Institute authors is some early successional perennial sunflowers (early successional, note…) that have a higher sexual allocation than their annual counterparts. For an institute that’s being going at this problem for forty years, this seems to me a pretty weak result to hang your research rationale on, as I argue in more detail here.

I think this issue of the lack of high yielding perennial grains throughout agricultural history is a bit of a problem for the Land Institute’s line of argument, because if there are no fundamental ecological obstacles to producing such a plant then it’s curious that it hasn’t yet happened. A lengthy paper by Land Institute plant breeders in the scholarly journal Evolutionary Applications argues that there were various compelling reasons why the early agriculturists opted for annual crops despite the lack of fundamental obstacles to perennial ones, and this sent humanity off down a blind alley which it followed religiously for ten millennia until modern perennial grain breeders appeared on the scene11. It’s an interesting paper, but an ultimately obfuscatory one, I think – the ‘backing the wrong horse’ historical argument tries to get the case for high-yielding perennial grains off a tricky historical hook. But I don’t think it really succeeds.

3. The argument from human ecology

Anyway, what’s so great about high yielding cereal crops? As I argue in this article, the world has become increasingly reliant on a torrent of cheap grain from the semi-arid continental grassland regions. The countries that have put serious effort into perennial grain research are all major grain exporters, and grain exports have had the effect of undermining more local small-scale agricultures and hustling populations into grain import dependent cities. So if it turns out that in order to conserve soils in the semi-arid continental grasslands it’s necessary to grow perennial grains with a lower yield than annual ones, thereby lowering grain exports from these regions, that would be a felicitous result for creating a more sustainable world. The Land Institute has already produced edible perennial grains, albeit ones with a much lower yield than their annual counterparts. Excellent stuff. You can stop now, your work is done!

Incidentally, as the aforementioned Phil Grime explains in a note on my website (available from here), there was interest in the 1960s in producing energy-rich food out of leafy rather than seedy perennial matter. This is a much more ecologically plausible way of teasing nutrition out of herbaceous perennials. But then along came Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution, where the strategy was to max out on the seedy potentiality of annual cereals, with short-straw, high nutrient responsive annual varieties – very clever, if ultimately somewhat questionable in its achievements, but illustrative I think of how much easier it is to push plants in directions they’re already ecologically predisposed to go in (the Green Revolution) than to push them in the opposite direction while trying to maintain key original traits (perennial grain breeding).

4. Heaven can wait: the argument from farm ecology

In the 2007 article that I mentioned above6, Land Institute breeders wrote “In sparsely distributed garden-sized patches, annual grains would have limited negative impact”, which strikes me as plausible. If your farming involves small, carefully-sited areas of tillage within a larger context of perennial and annual cover cropping, water management, wind protection and so forth, then it seems to me that annual grains would indeed have limited negative impact – especially in areas such as here in northwest Europe where rainfall isn’t especially erosive. Such farming is eminently achievable right now, without any further technical or plant-breeding innovations – a minimally destructive small farm future is right here within our grasp.

But Land Institute scientists now appear to have reneged on their earlier position – for example, in the recent Permaculture Magazine article in which Tim Crews is quoted as saying “In terms of carbon loss and nutrient leakage, if you open up 3x3m (10x10ft), it is going to take place whether you are a postage stamp gardener or not”12. Well, maybe so but is there not greater potential to check such losses in a farmed landscape with millions of people working small plots than there is in a landscape where you have a couple of tractor drivers tending thousands of acres? And even if there isn’t, might there be greater future potential for finding ways of preventing these losses on small-scale farms at the level of whole farm design than in finding the holy grail of a productive perennial polyculture? Crews talks as if developing perennial polycultures is the only viable way of devising a sustainable agriculture, without providing any evidence for this view.

It’s here that I start to find the Land Institute position a bit annoying. It’s like trying to talk trade-offs with a nuclear fusion nerd. Suppose I’ve got gas heating in my house, and I invest in cavity wall insulation to decrease my gas consumption. “You’re wasting your time,” says the fusion fan. “You’re still using gas, which is a bad, bad thing. And in a few decades we’re going to have figured out fusion, giving us unlimited clean energy. So you’re barking up the wrong tree with your silly insulation.”

Well, nuclear fusion isn’t here yet, and nor are productive perennial grain polycultures, so in the meantime why not try to get by as best we can in limiting the damage? A high yielding and sustainable perennial (grain) polyculture may be the gold standard, but we may never attain it and it may turn out that we get a decent bang for our buck taking other approaches. Heaven can wait. Perhaps in the long run annual agriculture may not be a sustainable strategy for humanity. But in the short run couldn’t the Land Institute just get off the backs of people trying to make their farming as sustainable as they possibly can, and accept that there are different paths to sustainability that are worth exploring? That way, it’ll spare us the frustrating experience of hosting permaculture visitors who look disdainfully at the wheat or potatoes in our rotations while citing the Land Institute as an example of what we should be doing. Though why the ‘domestic prairie’ it’s seeking is regarded as an example of permaculture nature mimicry beats me, since by its own admission what it’s trying to create is unprecedented in biological history.

5. The emperor’s clothes: the argument from scientific humility

And finally, talk of biological history makes me think of Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution by natural selection was a big shout, and it took him twenty odd years in between first formulating the elements of the theory in his mind and actually formalising it with the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859. What he didn’t do in the course of those twenty years was publish (or cause his acolytes to publish) an endless stream of data-light articles about how he’d figured out this great approach that was going to upturn everything people thought about biology, and though he hadn’t quite put all the details together yet, this was going to be really, really big at some point in the future.

No doubt perennial grain breeders are under the same pressures as other researchers to secure funding by talking up their approach. But I suspect that if they overplay their hand it may backfire. At some point somebody may yell that the emperor has no clothes. In a blog post, Land Institute breeder David Van Tassel wrote, “getting perennial plants to reallocate massively to sexual structures is a huge challenge….It may prove impossible”13. Hallelujah! More of that please. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. It just means that they’d be going about their business like proper scientists should – with circumspection, humility and the consciousness that their approach could prove wrongheaded and that other approaches may have something to contribute.

Conclusion

Here are some suggested lines for Land Institute scientists to voice in the next article somebody writes about them:

“Peggy Wagoner wrote that ‘the resources available for seed production in a perennial appear to be less than in an annual’. We think she could be wrong when it comes to edible perennial grains, though we haven’t proved it yet. There are difficult genetic, ecological and agronomic obstacles to overcome in developing a sustainable and high-yielding perennial grain polyculture, but we think it’s worth trying to overcome them. Other people are trying to overcome the problems of agriculture in other ways. Nobody can yet tell which – if any – ways will prove effective, but in agricultural research as well as in agriculture it pays not to put all your eggs in one basket, so we welcome these other approaches. In the meantime, we plan to continue with our research and to publish data on our perennial grain yields and the longevity of the crops in question in all of our publications”.

It would be a fine thing if the Land Institute could see its way to endorsing such a statement. Unfortunately, the Permaculture Magazine article reports that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now investing in perennial grain research. So I guess we can forget about circumspection, humility or the possibility of being wrong in this area.

It just remains for me to thank anyone who’s succeeded in reading this far, and to let you know that I feel sooo much better now I’ve got all that off my chest.

References

  1. Smaje, C. (2015). The strong perennial vision: a critical review. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.
  1. Bird, W. (2016) ‘Perennial grain research’ Permaculture Magazine, 87: 61-3.
  1. Ibid. p.61.
  1. See reference 1, and writings summarised at http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?page_id=714
  1. Wagoner, P. (1990). Perennial grain development— Past efforts and potential for the future. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 9: 381–408.
  1. DeHaan, L. et al. (2007). Perennial grains. In Farming with nature: The science and practice of eco-agriculture, eds. S. Scherr and J. McNeely, 61–82. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  1. Crews T. & DeHaan, L. (2015) The strong perennial vision: a response. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.
  1. DeHaan, L. et al. 2005. Perennial grain crops: A synthesis of ecology and plant breeding. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 20: 5–14.
  1. Piper, J., & P. Kulakow. 1994. Seed yield and biomass allocation in Sorghum bicolor and F1 and backcross generations of S. bicolor x S. halepense hybrids. Canadian Journal of Botany 72:468–474.
  1. Grime, J. & S. Pierce. 2012. The evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
  1. Van Tassel, D. et al. 2010. Missing domesticated plant forms: can artificial selection fill the gap? Evolutionary Applications 3: 434–452.
  1. Bird, op cit. p.62.
  1. Van Tassel, D. 2012. Tradeoff or payoff? http://perennialgrainresearch.blogspot.co. uk/2012/11/biomass-accumulation-by-miscanthus-in.html

38 thoughts on “Plants are not accountants, and heaven can wait: perennial grains revisited

  1. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a way is the peer group grains deserve, whether perennial or not.

    Standardizing grains to feed an ever-growing urbanised human population, nevermind the likelihood the energy descent will bring about a global population descent of some sort as well, necessitating some serious revisions of calories needed.
    But onward the Foundation trudges, delivering cutting-edge research to supply seas of grain, the bulk feed of future hierarchies and armies.

    But not us. We need other things.
    We need someone to write a new version of ‘Farmers Of Fourty Centuries’ called ‘Farmers Of The Next Fourty Centuries: How We Still Need To Fertilize With All Kinds Of Local Shit’, we need a revised edition of ‘Grazing Ecology And Forest History’ looking back into the future of the mosaic of agroecological land use.

  2. Obviously plants are not accountants in the human sense. And you might even convince me the individual plant here and there is not keeping a ledger full of sums. But on the whole I suspect there’s more financial acumen within those leaves than you give them credit. Resource allocation is a strategy based upon having a resource in the first place. And evolution will ultimately reward the best strategies in the deployment of those resources. In the final analyses Nature is the score keeper – the accountant of record. But those among her charges who do the best job of stewarding their resources (a sort of accountability if not technical accounting) will win the day.

    But just a quibble. I do like the general tack you’ve taken.

  3. I share your irritation with showpony sustainability zealots, Chris. All too common unfortunately. Defers effective action now and can lead to disengagement and loss of credibility if projects don’t deliver.

    Dunno if this is one of the paths the LI is pursuing but seedy perennials that still required significant inputs but didn’t require tillage or reseeding once established, could take advantage of sun and water when available over a growing season and achieved acceptable yields would be a step forwards.

    On a similar note, we planted some sequoia a few months ago. When young, new redwood growth is distinctively colored compared to existing growth. We had a very dry spring and limited rain in December and most of January. Since then we’ve had quite a bit of rain which has resulted in a growth pulse. So the plant is sitting there not particularly happy with the state of affairs but subsisting until conditions improve resulting in growth. Perennials with these traits would cope better with inconstant weather.

    And I should mention that our anomalous coppicing silverbeet (http://pragmaticsustainability.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/coppicing-silverbeet.html) has had its annual mow and is resprouting from the stems. We have gnarled old silverbeet stems going back several years despite Clem’s scepticism 🙂

  4. @Michael – nicely put. I like your idea of the BMGF and grains as a match made in hell.

    @Clem – agreed, though I guess my point is that evolution only rewards reckless allocation to seeds in particular circumstances (high resource input, lethal habitat disturbance, short life) which are not the circumstances the perennial grain folks are seeking. So they’re trying to optimize in different directions and I think are therefore likely to fail. I’ve no doubt that artificial selection can coax a better harvest index out of perennial grains, but I suspect at the cost of some of the key traits that they’re trying to retain.

    @David – yes I’m sure there’s scope for innovations with short-lived competitive perennials, though again I think leafiness rather than seediness may be the best option here. Ultimately all I’m saying is that there are unlikely to be trade-off free improvements across longevity, nutrition and seed production. This doesn’t strike me as a hugely heretical line of argument – you’d think I’d claimed the world was flat from some of the reactions I’ve received! Anyway, perhaps your silverbeet is the way forward…

  5. Hi Chris,
    I hadn’t seen your earlier pass over this topic, so thanks for the reprise. I do support the Land Institute, even though they are chasing a long shot, and Wes Jackson leans to the imperious. At least he’s pals with Gene Logsdon.
    Ever since I first heard of perennial prairie style grain raising as a concept, I have not been able to figure out how you’d do the harvest(s). If the wheat ripens in July, the sunflowers in August, and the sorghum in September, you are not going to drive through with a combine. Hand picking?
    Also, perennial seed agriculture is thousands of years old. Central Californian natives cultivated oaks, and were wealthy. Not to mention J. Russell Smith. The fixation on grass seeds strikes me as a lack of imagination. Or as giving the current ag economic regime more power than it deserves.
    Cheers.

    • Thanks Eric – all good points. My basic take is perennial seed agriculture – yes; herbaceous perennial seed agriculture as productive as herbaceous annual seed agriculture – probably not. Interesting to hear your view of Mr Jackson leaning to the imperious – that’s the impression I’ve started to gain of the Land Institute in general which I was articulating in this post, though it’s getting me into some trouble over on Resilience.org! But yes, it’s certainly worth supporting what they’re doing because you never know…

  6. I wouldn’t let “getting in trouble” over at a Resilience ruin my day. Someone over there referred to Brian as a slacker. The company you keep.

  7. I have seen Wes Jackson speak a couple times – he does get a crowd behind him. At his talk in Washington DC, before a non-ag crowd, he was rewarded with a standing ovation, minus one, for his noble, but romantic visions. If you are going to use nature as a model for agriculture, you must also accept the same amount of food that nature is exporting every year (as you state in different words) which is, at most, about a fifth of what our modern agriculture produces. So they could make the production system sustainable, but it would sustain very few of us, a error in logic that I see often.

  8. Chris, you have offended the secular religion of progress, represented by the Church of Resil Ience I.

    You will now be told what to think and do (and that you’re a commie) by independently wealthy people fearing for their picturesque future.

    You will henceforth need to seek solace by refusing to play what John Michael Greer (who has offended Resil, too) calls ‘troll bingo’, because stoicism (and a spam filter) will be your only weapons when the Space Bats attack.

  9. Thanks for your backing, gentleman – glad to know that, as with plant ecologies, I’m not walking completely alone here. Appreciate the warning about the space bat attack, Michael – defences now fully primed…

  10. Overall I agree with your take on perennial seed bearing plants, but your second point could be countered by looking at corn (maize). This is a plant that can’t even survive on its own any more. Its “life history pattern” is essentially artificial. Corn’s original teosinte genetics have been selectively pushed by humans so that it is practically a symbiant with us now.

    • That’s true, but I’d argue that the inability of annual cereal cultivars to cope without humans results from us pushing some of their latent potentialities like fast growth and disease susceptibility further than natural selection would allow in order to push a related trait (seed allocation), and in making use for our own purposes of otherwise deleterious mutations like non-shattering seed heads. What the perennial grain breeders need to do is preserve wild traits like stress tolerance while also pushing seed allocation, which seems to me a much harder and perhaps impossible task.

  11. I’ve studied genetics – though more those of microbes; plant genetics and physiology lectures I only heard on the basic level – and from my half-educated gut-feeling, I agree that perennial grasses with high seed yields are probably impossible to breed. There is a limit to how much energy photosynthesis can give a plant, and you can either put that into larger root systems or bigger seeds, but not both. You’d have to significantly increase the efficiency of the photosynthesis – and given that evolution has been working on those molecules for billions of years, I don’t think there’s any room for improvement left. The only way I can see this happening is breeding for increased leaf mass, which would mean that each plant would need much more space and thus not increase the yield by acre. You might be able to force the plants to go against their own interest by transgenetic GMO methods: i.e. inserting whole genome sequences from entirely different species like it’s done to make fast-growing yeast produce a host of different antibiotics that naturally only occur in mould fungi, or to make green algae produce large amounts of ethanol for biofuel directly from photosynthesis – instead of fermenting the biomass with yeast – until the algae themselves die off because the stuff is toxic to them), but not through traditional breeding by forced mutation and selection. (Most of our ‘not genetically modified’ grain crop variations were created in the early 20th century by putting radioactive materials on the research field and then selecting the random mutations that looked promising, with the hope that nothing non-visible had mutated as well, especially with regards to potentially toxic proteins etc. At least modern GMO methods allow the plant scientists to control what they’re doing.) But even transgenetic grains wouldn’t get around the basic energy allocation problem. And besides, it’s relatively easy to insert a gene for one enzyme or additional vitamin or anti-insect protein or whatever, but complex regulatory pathways as would be necessary to transplant perenniality are much, much harder, if not impossible. They still haven’t got far developing crops that are just significantly better at dealing with heat stress, as far as I know, and there are many plant geneticists working on that, for at least a couple of decades. The genetics and epigenetics are just too complicated to tinker with successfully. It’s not like Lego, no matter how much the simplifications in popular science documentaries and high school / college education make it look like that.

    What might be possible is to breed frost-tolerant potatoes. They already are perennial in their home-climate, after all. (Like many flowers that regrow from their roots or bulbs each spring; it’s just that we have to protect the potatoes’ over-wintering tissue from frost by digging them up, just like with dahlias.) But since any herbaceous crop that stores its energy for next years’ growth instead of spending it all on seeds needs soil disturbance to harvest, this wouldn’t really help with the erosion problem, even if we could breed potatoes that come back on their own if you leave a few tubers in the ground over winter.

    Nut trees and bananas and such are better at making high-energy seeds than herbaceous perennial plants, but they do so by putting all of their energy into growing roots and leaf mass for couple of decades first. (Okay, I don’t know the details for bananas or bread-fruit or other such tropical fruits; I just know that for example walnuts need at least 20 years before they bear proper yields in Central Europe, and hazel bushes need 10 years.)

    You don’t get free lunches in nature – it’s always a trade-off. Your German phrase for the day: “eierlegende Wollmilchsau” (egg-laying wool-milk-sow). It’s what my father, who grew up on a farm, used to call ideas / inventions that would be very handy to have, but which are impossible to realise due to the laws of nature.

    • Vivi, thanks for that very informative comment. All sounds very plausible to me. Frost tolerant potatoes sound feasible, but also as you say agronomically pointless – and they may struggle to cope with the harvesting.

      I’d be interested if you had any comments on the Land Institute’s line of argument regarding quantitative genetic tradeoffs – I can further specify the issue if you’re interested.

      I like your eierlegende Wollmilchsau phrase. There’s a few too many such creatures knocking around in the minds of people in the alternative agriculture movement!

    • Vivi:
      I was wondering if you might expand a bit on your parenthetic comment about most non-GMO crops – you said:
      Most of our ‘not genetically modified’ grain crop variations were created in the early 20th century by putting radioactive materials on the research field and then selecting the random mutations that looked promising

      What I’m curious about is where you’ve come across this idea.

  12. Coming late to the fray, so I won’t point further to nut trees and bushes as perennial seed providers. 🙂

    Since Wes Jackson is retiring, I think we can expect changes. As you say, their vision has been to grow “soil conserving, self-fertilizing, pest-resistant, perennial grain polycultures that yield just as much”. I fully expect that to shift to “self-fertilizing, pest-resistant, perennial polycultures that include grains as only one part of the mix, that yield less but come ahead in the accounting by placing emphasis on the “soil-conserving” and “resource-sparing” elements of the equation.”

    I am not sure why you are down on the “food prairie” model. To me, it makes eminent sense. Food forests have limited application in northern climates, while the more open prairie containing bushes, grasses, herbacious perennials and self-sown annuals all together. The East-coast Indians, as well as many tropical cultures worked on the food forest with much success… by learning to add more food plants to the variegated ecology that nature created. Tweaking it. Doing the same with prairie like ecologies has much promise. I would like to see the Land Institute to focus more on this aspect of the project, and perhaps they will. You might, Chris, write more about what Gabe Brown is doing, he’s been growing harvestable polycultures for some time now.

    I completely agree with your argument from human ecology, but don’t see the work done. Three cheers for the Land Institute. The logic of the original vision is problematic, but the place is making strides each year, gathering money and talent, and good things will come of it. My two cents.

    Here is my account of my visit there couple of years ago.
    https://leavingbabylon.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/food-prairie/

    • Vera, there’s not much I’d quarrel with in your comment, but let me elaborate a couple of points.

      On the Land Institute, I’m sure you’re right that good things will come of it – indeed I said so in my post! The only point I want to establish, which it sounds like we agree on, is that it’s very unlikely that it’ll be possible to breed perennial grain crops that yield as much as annual grains – which again I think we might agree is probably no bad thing. But it amazes me how resistant the Land Institute and its fans are to this idea. A large part of its output in scientific journals is devoted to arguing – mostly on theoretical grounds rather than on the basis of its actual results – that breeding perennial grains with yields equivalent to annual ones is feasible. I agree with you that a focus on “self-fertilizing, pest-resistant, perennial polycultures that include grains as only one part of the mix, that yield less but come ahead in the accounting by placing emphasis on the “soil-conserving” and “resource-sparing” elements of the equation” would be the right way to go, but it doesn’t seem to be where it’s at the moment. Maybe you’re right that’ll change with the change of personnel.

      Meanwhile, here in England where the farm ecologies are completely different and typically more propitious for annual cultivation, under the influence of the permaculture movement and to some extent the Land Institute, people continue to bang the drum for perennial crops and perennial grains in particular in ways that seem to me often quite naïve.

      On the issue of the ‘food prairie’, I’m not all that down on it – I find the Land Institute’s description of it a bit vague, that’s all, and I’m not yet convinced of its fit with farming. A bit like edible forests, I suspect it will work best on small, non-commercial plots. Or else maybe on a large scale with heavy mechanisation and low margins – not something I’d particularly welcome, and Eric’s comments above are interesting on that score. I suppose the question for me would be at what point does an ‘edible prairie’ start looking like a mixed farm – are we just rebranding something that may not be that different from well-established agricultural models? Maybe not in the context of the US prairie, but perhaps more so here in an English farm ecology. So again I’m not sure how well the concept travels.

      Nut trees – yes. But that’s a whole different bag of nuts, so to speak.

      Thanks for the link to your blog. Very interesting – I’ll try to find the time to read up on some more of your posts.

      • Chris, yes, I agree that the original vision is dubious, and they have been resisting a major shift. I think it’s politics. Not that I have special connections there, but my sense of it is that Wes has built the enterprise on that vision, and has been extremely good at it. So good he is at inspiring people that challenges to his leadership would have been impossible. So we’ll see what happens now. He is wise to step down at this time; “founder’s disease” and all that.

        I am a big fan of the “food prairie” model because it starts from a different place than the current mainstream model. Instead of clearing a field and imposing a crop on it, it starts with what is there and adding edibles to alter the landscape in a more gentle, nature-mimicking way. I think the very conception is a good challenge for the human mind… what if we did it this way?

        Yes, the LI’s vagueness on the food prairie bit bothered me the most when I was there. They grew kernza as a monocrop. I challenged them and they pointed to Gabe Brown. Did not seem to have it on their agenda yet — which struck me as strange indeed. 🙂

      • The corner the Land Institute has driven itself into with its focus on a prairie is that the only crop that could sensibly be harvested in such an environment with less machinery and synthetic nitrogen than today plus increased reliance on labour is meat and not cereals.
        And you don’t need special grains in agroforestry because the deep root layer is provided by the trees. You don’t even need more straw carbon (unless you have a use other than ploughing it in for it), because leaf fall will provide its share.

        I’m reminded of the discussion of America’s grain exporting business in ‘Muddling Toward Frugality’, and the questions regarding the role it’s playing, propping up the expansion of the world’s population by destabilizing domestic markets and forcing peasants into cities.

        But then, if Wes Jackson “leans to the imperious”…

  13. Vera, you’re absolutely right – they aren’t. But my question is: What are they good for?
    Is it wise to go about claiming, like LI does, that one can establish “self -fertilizing” edible landscapes there? The early farmers must have thought their crops were self-fertilizing, too, because the soils initially were that deep.
    If the orairies were to be made self-fertilizing, it would mean resources were to be conserved in a near-closed system. They aren’t when it comes to grains being grown in such vast areas, because those grains will exert a centrifugal economic force in and of themselves; you can’t contain them, they must be exported.

    As for Gabe Brown: He’s doing splendid work; I just wish he too would refrain from claiming he “doesn’t fertilize” his fields – his fertilizer may not come in a bag, but it sure does come in a bale.

    • Heh. I wish Gabe’d stop saying he is no till. He is low till! 🙂

      The dry prairies can grow more food without irrigation, provided they are maintained as nature does it, with lots of organic matter, so the little rain that does come, goes a long way.

      And you are absolutely right — the fact that the food/other organic matter is removed, is another problem. When bison maintained the prairies, they kept the residues and manures right there. Humans haul them away. What about that part of the accounting, Chris?

      I don’t think we can, in the end, get away from it: all food waste and all manures, including human, must go back on the fields. Without this piece, the equation cannot be balanced.

  14. Nice to see this debate unfolding here, with interesting points and constructive critique of the LI – rather than the (angry…) denouncements going on elsewhere. I haven’t come across Gabe Brown, so I’ll need to look him up. But indeed there are a lot of people around doing good things, but who make rather stronger claims for the virtues of their approaches than seem warranted.

    Recycling wastes? Yes indeed – and I write as the proud owner of four compost toilets on my holding (one agricultural benefit of running a small campsite). Another good reason to opt for distributed, local, labour-intensive, small scale farming.

      • We have separating toilets, with the liquids going into 25l cans which are then composted with woodchip and the solids into 1000l IBCs with a handful of sawdust going in after each deposit. We’ve only just filled the first IBC after a few years, though only 18 months of full onsite residence, so we haven’t yet used that compost. But no problems so far.

        • The Food Forest (http://www.foodforest.com.au/) at Gawler in SA (of which Holmgren speaks highly from a permaculture perspective and where we did a PDC) has a composting toilet used by large numbers of people during courses, tours etc I understand it has all the necessary permits and has been used as a demonstration system to show Local Government officers what is possible. We used it when we were there. It was fine. (The Food Forest also has a nice reed bed water treatment system.) Some National Parks in Australia have composting dunnies.

          Holmgren encourages people to wee with a distributed nutrient recycling perspective when they do tours of Melliodora (http://holmgren.com.au/melliodora/).

        • You mean you flush the stuff into the IBC? If you don’t flush, what do you mean by “toilet”? Just a hole to sit on? Is the IBC buried? I am having a hard time picturing it.

          • No flushing, they’re waterless – another ecological plus point. So I suppose you could say ‘just a hole to sit on’…but I don’t think of it as ‘just a hole’ – to me it is a magnificent throne from which to survey the farm while feeling fully connected to its rhythms. Perhaps I’ll do a photo feature soon. Only downside from a male perspective is that you need to sit down to pee – la Brassicata built the toilet, and for some reason she thinks that if I want a urinal it’s my job to construct it…

            …then again, there’s always the option which I frequently take of what David spendidly describes as ‘distributed nutrient recycling’

          • Oh please, do a feature with photos! I find bucket systems leave something to be desired, and am on the lookout for something more low maintenance.

            Tell about insect proofing too?

  15. I quickly realized when I’d read both ‘Tree Crops-A Permanent Agriculture’ and ‘Farmers Of Fourty Centuries’, why the one admonishing people to plant more trees to someday accomplish yields which aren’t really well defined is being treated as a permaculture bible, and the one minutely detailing every detail and every single stage of human and animal excrements’ movement from source to sink and back to source again seems to be far less of a “gold standard” (pardonnez le pun).

    • Michael, thanks for that report – both books have been sitting in my in tray for way too long…so now I know which one to prioritize.

  16. Be sure to get a hardcopy, not an electronic one – at least not the one I read that had the pictures removed; they’re plentiful and detailed (got my proper copy recently).

  17. As a disabled US ex farmer (the disability came after I became an ex farmer) I have time and an interest in what you are trying to accomplish. I visit many anti-modern civilization sites and the Resilience site has very little anti-GMO and death to Monsanto rhetoric and much well thought out plans for a healthy, sustainable future.

    I have lived on the same large home site for 45 years. I thought I wanted to surrounded by oak trees. Now they are threatening my house (too big to put your arms around, who knew oak trees grew so fast) so I will have to bring in heavy machinery (30,000 lb backhoe my brother conveniently has) and take seven of them out. Fruit and nut trees take many years to mature but my dad is 85 so I guess if plant some and the world keeps turning I will get to enjoy them.

    I got tired of the deer eating all of my garden so I took some advise from the Yardfarmers show and tilled up part of my front yard. I sent a photo to them and they put it on their web site. After I get things growing I will send in an after photo.

    • Thanks for commenting Dan – I’d be interested to see the photos. Yes, big and slow is the way with trees, though as you point out not always as slow as we might think!

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