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Ideas for a Better Food System :: Soil

Researchers at the Land Institute are working to breed grains that build soil and to create crops that don't require tilling, tending or spraying.

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Across the U.S., about 90 percent of cropland is losing soil at an unsustainable rate.

In Salina, Kansas, researchers at the Land Institute are working to solve the problem from the roots up by breeding perennial varieties of grains that actually build soil. By crossing high-yield annual species like wheat and sorghum with their wild perennial relatives, the Land Institute aims to create food crops that don’t require intensive tilling, tending, or spraying.

“We have to farm the way nature farms,” says Land Institute founder Wes Jackson, a plant geneticist and fourth-generation farmer. Instead of row after row of a single species, perennial crops are grown in diverse mixtures that function like Kansas native wild prairie, naturally repelling pests and disease while storing water and holding soil and nutrients in place.

By mimicking ecosystems, farmers encourage and take advantage of the age-old evolutionary relationships between plants, soil, bacteria, insects, and animals.

The Land Institute believes ecosystem-modeled agriculture can be applied anywhere in the world, provided we look to nature’s example for cultivating plant communities that can also feed people. The result, claims the Land Institute, is “a wholly new way of farming” that will “make conservation a consequence of, not an alternative to, food production.”


Anna Stern wrote this article in the series New (and Old) Ideas for a Better Food System as part of Food for Everyone, the Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Anna is an editorial intern at YES! Magazine.

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