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Rooted in Science

The Land Institute is changing the agriculture game for a sustainable food future

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Given the pitfalls of conventional agriculture and the increasing need to feed a rising global population, it’s clear we need to change how we grow and harvest our food—and fast. Fortunately, companies like The Land Institute are on a mission to replace annual crops with perennial grain crops to help move the agricultural industry in a more sustainable direction.

“The Land Institute focuses on creating diverse perennial grain agriculture systems that involve perennial grain crops, including cereals, legumes, and oil seeds,” says Tammy Kimbler, Chief Communications Officer at The Land Institute.

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The current agriculture system is failing

Conventional farming practices involve intensive single-crop production and heavy-duty machinery that rely on fossil fuels, pesticides, antibiotics, and nitrogen-based fertilizers to yield high production levels. Unfortunately, this reliance contributes to climate change, soil degradation, and pollution.

[Shifting] needs to work for farmers from ecological, economic, holistic, and social standpoints,” says Kimbler. “A main issue with industrial agriculture monocropping is the scarcity of options regarding what’s grown.”

Besides its environmental impacts, modern agriculture also poses serious health implications:

  • Regular antibiotic use in animal agriculture leads to human antibiotic resistance.
  • Pesticides, nitrates, and phosphorus contaminate water quality in urban and rural areas.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions and pollution degrade air quality and contribute to climate change.
  • Farmworkers exposed to toxic substances and contaminants are at a higher risk of injury and developing chronic health conditions.

According to The Land Institute, grains comprise over 70% of our global caloric intake and over 70% of our global croplands. Transitioning to a sustainable perennial agricultural system is essential for feeding a growing population.

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Benefits of perennial grains

Perennial grains are a sustainable solution to the issues surrounding modern agriculture. “By their very nature, perennial crops are regenerative since you plant them once and they grow back on their own,” Kimbler says. “They don’t require replanting or tilling, and the soil remains undisturbed.” They offer several advantages over annual crops:

  • resilience against extreme weather conditions
  • soil protection from erosion and improved soil structure
  • increased nutrient retention, carbon sequestration, and water infiltration
  • counteraction against climate change
  • food and water security

Additionally, they provide economic stability for farmers by reducing expenses accrued from expensive artificial inputs and operational costs associated with tillage and planting each year.

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Types of perennial grains

The Land Institute has created an emerging global network of perennial crops, legumes, and oilseeds grown in the U.S., China, Europe, South America, Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa:

  • Kernza®: The trademark name of a domesticated perennial wheatgrass grain developed by The Land Institute and grown throughout Europe.
  • Sorghum: A tropical grass with a high seed yield currently grown in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Wheat: Hybrid grains are made by crossing annual durum wheat species with wheatgrass species in America.
  • Rice: The Land Institute has provided funding and support for Yunnan University in China to develop a perennial rice grain that was the subject of a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Sustainability in 2022.
  • Oilseeds:  Silphium integrifolium is being domesticated as an oilseed crop to replace annual sunflower and soy oilseed crops.
  • Legumes:  Perennial legume crops enhance soil fertility and provide high-protein seeds for human consumption.

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Why perennial grain crops?

Anne Schwagerl, Vice President of the Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU) has been growing The Land Institute’s trademark Kernza® perennial grain on her farm since 2020.

Kernza® has helped to protect her farm’s soil by making it more resilient and preventing erosion from extreme weather events. In turn, this has diversified Schwagerl’s farming operation and reduced the risks from unpredictable weather and climate impacts.

Kernza® accomplishes this by covering the ground, developing sustainable root systems, holding the soil in place, and preventing water runoff through increased water infiltration. In addition, Schwagerl has the added benefit of a grain harvest which she sells on the growing niche small grain market.

Perennial grains are a sustainable solution to the issues surrounding modern agriculture. Moving away from conventional agriculture to a perennial system is our best bet for securing a sustainable and regenerative food future.

To learn more about The Land Institute or donate, visit landinstitute.org.

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The Quest for Ecological Intensification

The Land Institute uses ecological intensification to harness the power of naturally-occurring processes for improved soil fertility, pest control, and loss prevention of soil, nutrients, and organic matter. Ecological intensification replaces man-made inputs such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers while increasing food production and promoting biodiversity.

Researchers at The Land Institute believe perennial grain crops can provide levels of ecological intensification previously out of reach in modern agriculture without the need for the chemical-based inputs that produced the increased crop yields seen in industrial agriculture over the last century.

“Ecological intensification fosters a system of life. It requires breeding the right plants and growing them in the best combinations for the soil type and local ecology to create a sustainable and regenerative system,” says Kimbler. “Soils that have served as the breadbasket in North America for hundreds of years are in decline. We must re-engineer our systems to behave more naturally and ecologically.”

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