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Biomimicry, Smart Breeding and Prairie-Like Farms
Alex Steffen, 25 Aug 04

gully.gifThe American experiment has been rife with pretty disastrous ecological choices -- clearcutting the nation's ancient forests, basing our transportation system on the internal combustion engine, subsidizing the Post-War wave of suburban sprawl -- but right up near the top of the list has been factory farming of the High Plains.

(much more...)

In the last fifty years, farming has been transformed from the kind of family enterprise we all remember from our children's books to a full-blown industrial resource extraction industry. The resource? Topsoil. By piecing together larger and larger farms (more and more often under the ownership of one of a handful of large agrobusiness corporations), using giant machinery to till the topsoil to kill whatever plants may be taking hold, planting giant "monocultures" of identical crops (often now identical more in the sense of clones than of relatives) and soaking the land in pesticides, weed killers and chemical fertilizer, industrial agriculture has essentially become the practice of strip-mining soil.

The crops produced are unquestionably more profitable than were those grown in traditional ways. But while the profits are high, so are the costs. Erosion is the most obvious. In Iowa, according to some sources, as many as six bushels of topsoil wash away for every bushel of corn that makes it to market. Wheat fields in parts of Washington's Palouse are losing as much as three-quarters of an inch of topsoil every year. Agricultural scientist Jon Piper says farms in the High Plains states are estimated to have already lost a third of their topsoil and half their fertility.

The last point is critical. As disturbed topsoil is scoured away by rain, or blown away by wind, what remains is less fertile. What's more, the petrochemical drenchings which make up so much of industrial farming practice have heavily polluted soils -- indeed, some ecologists think that runoff from agriculture is the largest source of toxic pollution in the nation, and farming communities are suffering from extremely high rates of cancers and miscarriages.

Soil is also alive, and the steady chemical beatings its taken most everywhere in the U.S. over the last fifty years have killed off many of the microorganisms which keep it alive, and dead soil is no longer soil, it's just wet dust. As Janine Benyus puts it, "The fungi that once wrapped their threads around rootlets to extend their reach, the brotherhoods of beneficial soil organisms, the bacteria that spun airborne nitrogen into food -- they're all down to a skeleton crew."

Industry's response has largely been to fight this loss of fertility with heavier drenchings: American pesticide use has risen over 3,300 percent since 1945, fertilizer use per acre has increased every year (having gone from 14 million tons worldwide in 1950 to 137 million tons in 2000), and still soils are nearly everywhere going barren, as harvest sizes falter and crop-loss to insects increase (by as much, some say, as 20% in the last twenty years). Overall, harvest yields have gone from increasing two percent a year worldwide from 1950 to 1990, to an increase of only half a percent a year from 1997 to 2002, according to the Department of Agriculture.

If the situation is grim in farming, it's little better in ranching (as recent scandals over bovine growth hormones and mad cow disease have spotlighted). Michael Pollin's observation that "[A] cattle feedlot is a kind of city, populated by as many as 100,000 animals. It is very much a premodern city, however -- crowded, filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads and choking air ....As in 14th-century London, the metropolitan digestion remains vividly on display: the foodstuffs coming in, the waste streaming out. Similarly, there is the crowding together of recent arrivals from who knows where, combined with a lack of modern sanitation. This combination has always been a recipe for disease; the only reason contemporary animal cities aren't as plague-ridden as their medieval counterparts is a single historical anomaly: the modern antibiotic.
"…In any city, it's easy to lose track of nature -- of the connections between various species and the land on which everything ultimately depends. The feedlot's ecosystem, I could see, revolves around corn. But its food chain doesn't end there, because the corn itself grows somewhere else…. Growing the vast quantities of corn used to feed livestock in this country takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil -- 1.2 gallons for every bushel. So the modern feedlot is really a city floating on a sea of oil."

Industrial agriculture has a crisis on its hands. You can see visible evidence of that crisis in what were once the thriving farm towns of America's Heartland. "Take a drive through the countryside here," writes Thomas Frank from Kansas, "and you will see no trees, no picturesque old windmills or bridges or farm buildings, and almost no people. When the aquifer dries up, as it someday will -- its millions of years of collected rainwater spent in just a few decades -- you will see even less out here." You can see it in the fields themselves, in the dust clouds that blow through the region and the coffee-black rivers of run off that swell its rivers every time a serious storm gets going. Our system of farming is collapsing.

One answer is to change the way we farm.

Instead of turning the soil every year, we could grow perennial plants which need no tilling. Instead of growing square miles of the same kind of corn, we could assemble a whole community of crops based on native grasses and shrubs. "Essentially, we have to farm the way nature farms," Jackson said.

The advantages of prairie-like farms would be multiple:

"Unfortunately, we can't eat a prairie. Over the last 100 years, we have plowed up the prairie and replaced it with our own agriculture, based on annual plants grown in monocultures (one species for miles). Unlike the prairie's perennial polycultures, these annual monocultures do need our help. Using annuals means we have to plow each year, which leads to soil erosion. To make up for poorer soil, we pour on tons of chemical fertilizers. To protect our all-you-can-eat monocultures from pests, we heap on oil-based pesticides. It works out to about 10 kilocalories of petroleum to produce one kilocalorie of food. The way to get off this "treadmill of vigilance", says Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, is to breed perennial crops that we can eat and grow them in a prairie-like polyculture. Jackson's edible prairie would not merely be new; it would be the polar opposite of what we have now. The plants would overwinter, so we wouldn't need to plow and plant every year, or worry about soil erosion. We wouldn't need to add synthetic fertilizers because nitrogen-fixing plants would be in the mix. We wouldn't need to spray biocides because the presence of lots of different plant species would slow down pest outbreaks. What we would have, instead of an extractive agriculture that mimics industry, is a self-renewing agriculture that mimics nature. Though radical, this idea of breeding a prairie you can eat is quite realistic, when you consider that most of our crops were bred from perennial wild relatives. Over ten thousand years, we turned them into annuals and narrowed their genetic pools. So now we are looking to widen those genetic pools and breed perennial traits back into edible grains. Right now, natural systems agriculture is at the Kitty Hawk stage-the researchers have proven the agricultural equivalent of drag and lift. Working alone, they will need 25-50 years of wind tunnel tests before domestic prairies can be planted in the Breadbasket."

Modeling human systems, like farms, on natural ones, like prairies, is known as biomimicry.[sentence defining biomimicry] In her seminal book on the topic, biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus says Jackson's methodology, of "learning a native system, intuiting its 'rules,' and then slowly trying to raise a stable community of crops that mimics the structure and performs the function of the wild one" is the archetypal example of how agriculture might be saved by learning from nature.

There's one big problem, though: time. Staff at the Land Institute tell Benyus that they're twenty-five to fifty years away from the first commercial prairie-farms, and perhaps even farther away from widespread adoption. Why so slow? The breeding programs they've undertaken -- trying to turn wild perennials like gamagrass, bundleflower, mammoth wildrye and Maximilian sunflower into viable crops, and hybridize commercial annuals like sorghum and Johnsongrass to grow perennially -- take generations of crops to perfect. Their experiments building communities of plants also take years to show results. Doing this all by hand, so to speak, from scratch, is a laborious process. As one staffer told a reporter, "This is work which progresses in decades."

We don't have that kind of time.

But we may not have to wait. DNA need not be manipulated in unwise ways. The same insight into the genetic workings of plants that Big Ag has exploited to shoot genes from salmon or bacteria into tomatoes or corn can also be used in ways which are much safer and perhaps more effective.

The new approach is known as "smart breeding." Smart breeding could deliver the kind of plants it'll take to make visions like Jackson's prairie-farms into reality.

But the models from which we might work to create prairie-like farms are fast disappearing. As High Country News reports, once grasslands are plowed under (a process known as sod-busting), they're pretty much gone forever. Restoring natural prairie ecosystems is next to impossible given current knowledge and technologies.

The High Plains are becoming a ghost landscape, full of empty towns, increasingly barren fields, and polluted waters. It's still possible to imagine something much different -- a future for the plains where the farms and the highgrass prairies are nearly indistinguishable, where buffalo roam again in massive herds, where windpower is the biggest harvest; a Great Plains full of sustainable businesses and thriving small towns -- but business-as-usual won't get us there.

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Alex, this was an excellent essay that brought attention to a problem that I honestly didn't know existed. In your research, have you seen any prospective intermediate solutions to the problem? From your description, we could deplete the resources of giant tracts of land in under a decade and prairie-style farming may come too late. Any hints of farming styles that might work in the meantime?

Posted by: Lockle on 25 Aug 04

This article touches on an important subject, its great to hear people talking seriously about it.

The only critisism is discussing U.S. practices and using worldwide statistics to back up your point, for example:

"Overall, harvest yields have gone from increasing two percent a year worldwide from 1950 to 1990, to an increase of only half a percent a year from 1997 to 2002..."

I would like to know the U.S. statistics for this.

Posted by: Michael Phoenix on 25 Aug 04

Such unpleasant information. I wish it wasn't true. :-(

Posted by: Myke on 25 Aug 04

Alex, great article. The work that the Land Institute is doing is great, and very important.

Let me through out a few URLs for folks:

Managing Wholes:

Streaming audio of Jenin Benus at the 2003 Bioneers:

Streaming audio of Fred Kirschenmann also at the 2003 Bioneers, with the story of "The Power of Duck", a Japanese farmer finding a way to farm ecologically:


Posted by: B K on 25 Aug 04

Why in tarhooties would someone be stupid enough to farm land like that when much better farmland elsewhere is fallow because we already are making more food then we need?

Posted by: wintermane on 26 Aug 04



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