Look at satellite images of the upper Mississippi River valley in the spring, and you’ll see a vast brown gash running across the land: untold acres of fields stripped of all vegetation, plowed and seeded, waiting for the first annual crops to emerge. And then look at an image of the Gulf of Mexico taken a few months later, optimized to show the massive expanse of algae blooms that form off the coast of Louisiana every summer. That watery expanse will soon become the “dead zone”—an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island where the Gulf waters lack sufficient oxygen to sustain normal marine life. You can sail for miles across this part of the Gulf every summer and encounter nothing but decomposing algae.
Though their subjects are separated by 500 miles, these two satellite images are intimately connected to each other. Those endless acres devoid of plant life send massive quantities of eroded soil into the waters of the Mississippi, which carries it to the Gulf. The high nitrogen content of that heavily fertilized soil sparks an explosion of algae, which eventually die and drift to the bottom of the sea. The bacteria that help decompose them will suck all the oxygen out of the water, creating hypoxic conditions incapable of supporting almost any living creatures down near the ocean floor.
The results may not always be visible from outer space, but soil erosion is happening virtually anywhere annual crops are planted intensively. And so a small band of environmentally minded researchers have begun to question the sustainability of the grains that have dominated human diets since the dawn of agriculture. “What we’re trying to do is correct a wrong turn made by human beings ten thousand years ago,” says one of them, Stan Cox, a senior scientist at The Land Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research center in Salina, Kansas. Domesticating annual crops might have been a smart decision for small groups of hunter-gatherers first adopting a settled lifestyle. But as a continuing strategy for feeding a planet that’s home to 6 billion people, it could be a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Historians date the very beginning of human civilization to roughly 8000 B.C., with the formation of the first agrarian communities in the Fertile Crescent. But our Mesopotamian ancestors might not have started to farm were it not for an evolutionary shift that had nothing to do with the family of man: A subsection of the wheat family broke off from its closest relatives millions of years ago, shedding the steady existence of perennials for the abbreviated life cycle of annual plants.
Annuals thrive in environments with extreme variation in weather conditions, most notably the so-called Mediterranean climate—a short, temperate rainy season followed by nine months of dry heat. Perennials trying to flourish in a climate like this have to figure out a way to stay alive during those brutal dry months, but annuals opt out of the struggle altogether. They simply die at the end of each rainy season and rely on their seeds’ capacity to sit out the dry spell and sprout new life when the rains return.
Since the plants themselves are disposable, they spend almost all their energy in producing seeds (many of which humans can digest) and waste almost nothing building sturdy bark or fibrous stems (which humans can’t digest). By adapting to the Mediterranean climate, grains like wheat and barley made themselves vulnerable to human cultivation and set in motion a series of self-reinforcing loops that led to the birth of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent and at least four other regions. Today, those two original crops plus other cereal grains account for more than 50 percent of the calories ingested worldwide.
“It was always a dream of mine that we could have perennial wheat,” says Jim Moore, whose family has managed a farm in Kahlotus, Washington, 100 miles from the Idaho border, since his grandfather homesteaded there in 1896. “And that’s mostly because of erosion. Where we are in Washington, if we can get nine inches of rain a year, we think we’ve died and gone to heaven. It’s extremely dry and windy; it takes two years of moisture to raise one crop. I just thought if we could have a [perennial] grass plant that had a wheat head on it, we wouldn’t have to till the soil and do all this extra work.” Whether in the dry eastern region of Washington or the upper Mississippi River valley (which collects significant amounts of moisture), fields planted with perennial wheat wouldn’t suffer problems caused by soil erosion. The new plants would look similar to their annual cousins, but their root systems would be deep and long-lived, like those of the native prairie grasses that once covered the Great Plains. Just the seed-bearing stalks would be harvested, leaving that network of roots in the ground during the months when erosion is at its worst, recycling nutrients and keeping the valuable topsoil in place.
“About twelve, thirteen years ago,” Moore explains, “I was on the Washington Wheat Commission. Some new breeders at Washington State University were asking me what I’d like to see, and I said, ’a perennial wheat.’ And they laughed at me. But then a couple of years later, why, they came back to me and said, ’We’re going to do it.’” That’s why a geneticist at Washington State named Stephen Jones began investigating ways to breed perennial behavior into today’s annual crops.
“We were real interested in why and how a plant decides to die,” Jones says. “It’s not a normal process—most living organisms don’t plan to die. In fact, annual wheat is a mutation of more-ancient wheats that didn’t die.” Jones’s interest was not purely theoretical, though. He runs WSU’s program in winter-wheat breeding, which includes test plots on Jim Moore’s farm.
Breeding perennial grain crops is not a new development: The Soviet Union had a program in the mid-20th century, and a USDA scientist stationed at the University of California, Davis, worked on the problem from the ’40s until the ’60s. Both projects died out, though, because the crops couldn’t produce yields competitive with those of annuals. “For the past hundred years, yield has been everything,” Jones adds. But today’s more environmentally minded farmers have come to recognize that focusing exclusively on yield is shortsighted. Or as Jones puts it: “What’s it worth to save your soil?”
Today’s perennial breeders are a strange mix: They use advanced technology to restore our crops to their original way of life and artificially cultivate a more “natural” existence for them. But they are explicitly not practicing genetic modification. At the Land Institute, Stan Cox and his colleagues do use genetic techniques for analysis: to figure out what traits are where in the plant’s genome and identify plants that are well-suited for breeding. “But we’re not doing genetic engineering—shooting new genes into plants,” Cox says. “That kind of manipulation doesn’t really have much to offer us; there’s no known gene that will make a perennial. Being perennial is a whole way of life for the plant—it’s a lot of genes working together.”
Instead, the breeders take current grains that have perennial relatives and create hybrids. The research has already generated some promising results, though both Cox and Jones caution that the work will take decades, in large part because the life cycle of these plants is much longer than that of annual species. And according to Daren Coppock, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers, the concerns of farmers like Jim Moore in Kahlotus are the exception. “Perennial wheat hasn’t attracted much grower interest,” he says. “It’s not commercially available yet, and it’ll be a long time before it is.”
Listening to Cox and Jones describe their work, it’s hard not to marvel at the delicate balancing act they’ve created. All too often, environmental goals conflict with the farmer’s need to make money. But a field planted with perennial wheat would reduce soil erosion—and, consequently, water contamination—and provide habitat for wildlife. Farmers would spend less money planting seed and artificially enhancing their soil’s productivity with nitrogen fertilizer. “It would allow conservation and production to go on simultaneously,” Cox says.
There’s a guiding philosophy behind the search for perennial wheat, one we’re likely to hear more about in the coming decades. It goes by the name “natural systems agriculture,” a coinage of Land Institute cofounder Wes Jackson. The natural systems model looks to the resilience and self-regulation of unplanned ecosystems for lessons in how to build the man-made systems of agriculture. While evolution doesn’t put quite the same premium on payload that modern breeders do, it does tend to favor sustainability. Diverse plantings make it harder for a single insect or pathogen to wipe out an entire field, thereby reducing the need for pesticides. And perennial crops manage the finite resources of the soil much more efficiently. It’s no wonder that all the world’s thriving ecosystems involve a complex web of perennial species, while a monoculture of annual plants is all but unheard of in the wild.
Perennial crops are unlikely to fully replace traditional annual systems; worldwide demand for wheat is too great to be met by their lower yields. And just as our oil dependency and our air pollution are lessened by an increase in, say, the number of hybrid vehicles on the road, an uptick in the number of perennial breeds in the soil can make a significant contribution to the long-term sustainability of the agricultural way of life.
Environmentalists have long asked the question: What happens when China’s 1.3 billion people all decide they want to drive automobiles and thus consume the same fossil fuels per capita as Americans? In a sense, Cox and Jones are asking the culinary version of that question, focusing on carbs, not carburetors: What happens if those 1.3 billion want to adopt the American diet—high in meat and processed foods—as well? They will require enough resources in the soil to fuel those appetites (and the need for feed grain), and any planting system that’s draining those resources into the Yellow River is going to eventually reach a crisis point.
In fact, the soil-oil connection is a direct one. The United States has been able to maintain its agricultural system despite losing up to half its topsoil over the past century precisely because it supplements that soil with nitrogen fertilizer that is itself produced using fossil fuels. Our majestic fields of amber grain turn out to be just as addicted to oil as our interstates are. (Some estimates suggest that the global population would be 40 percent smaller if it weren’t for the artificial prop of fossil fuel-based fertilizers.) And so, as in the automobile industry, farmers are going to need new hybrids.
It will take some time, of course, given current yields and the novelty of the idea—although compared with the 10,000-year span of agriculture, the development of perennial wheat and other plants will probably happen in the blink of an eye. And on the ground in Kahlotus, Jim Moore is confident that the dry hills on his family farm will one day be covered with those perennial crops he once fantasized about. “My dream now is that I’ll live long enough to see it,” says Moore, who turned 69 this year. “But my daughter definitely will. It’s going to happen.”