While developers of genetically engineered foods (GEF) strive to produce hardier and higher-yielding plants, ecologists throughout the world eye transgenics skeptically. They fear that these genetically altered plants, may escape into the wild and displace native plants with unforeseen and potentially devastating results. Dr. Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute in Kansas, a non-profit research facility devoted to alternative agriculture practices, warns that, if misused, biotechnology may lead to the human-induced degradation of the genomes of plant species.
“What is being more or less ignored” in the rush to biotechnology, Jackson said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, “is that some of the same principles and processes that govern an ecosystem, like a forest or a prairie, also operate with genomes. The genome is a miniature ecosystem.”  Thinking along the same lines, Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists of America suggested that transgenic science practices may release a seemingly harmless gene into our food supply with life-threatening consequences.
Growing knowledge of potential risks to ecosystem and human health is prompting many to insist that GEFs be identified and segregated so that consumers can make a choice for or against them. Which brings us to the obvious question: what alternative to the use of GEFs will we find to feed our ever-growing populations? Rissler advocates an alternative vision for agriculture, one based on nature’s own balance, which she calls “sustainable agriculture” or “biomimicry”.
Janine Benyus, nature writer and champion of nature-inspired innovation, defines the quest of biomimicry as “the conscious emulation of life’s genius. Innovation inspired by nature.” In her revolutionary book of the same name, Benyus describes how maverick scientists at the Land Institute are remaking agriculture using self-sufficient crops able to “live amicably with their field mates, stay in sync with their surroundings, build soil beneath them and handle pests with aplomb.”
Using nature as a standard, rather than something to be subdued or ignored, the Land Institute is developing self-fertilizing and pest-resistant farms modeled on natural ecosystems. Their heuristic research represents an ecology-based approach to food production, which contrasts the the organism-based approach of GEFs. According to Jackson, biomimicry provides a healthy alternative to the promotion of genetically altered plants more resistant to pesticides, because biomimicry bypasses the use of chemicals altogether.
According to the Institute, “ecosystems self-regulate, accumulate ‘ecological capital’ and are largely resilient to most perturbations.” According to Jackson, many problems faced by the agriculture industry today stem from replacing natural systems with totally alien systems, and from waging war on rather than allying ourselves with natural processes. He suggests that this has resulted in a steady loss of ecological capital (the erosion and salting of soils, the steady domesticating and weakening of our crops.)
The mission of the Land Institute is to “honour natural ecosystems and mimic them.” The Land Institute argues that “the tendency of all natural ecosystems is to increase their ecological wealth. For instance, all prairie, left alone, recycles materials, sponsors its own fertility, runs on contemporary sunlight, and increases biodiversity. Agricultural systems tend otherwise. They erode and degrade ecological capital as they provide for human needs.”
The premise behind “natural systems agriculture” is a “polyculture of herbaceous perennials, which would run on sunlight, preserve soil, maintain biological diversity, yield adequately, and not rely on harmful synthetic chemical for fertility or pest management.”
Polycultures of perennial indigenous plants would incorporate the dynamic properties of natural succession.
Working with four species (Illinois bundle flower, a legume; wild rye, a cool-season grass; eastern gamma grass, a warm-season grass related to corn; and Maximillian sunflower) the Land Institute’s research and development in biomimicry is finding answers to four basic agronomic questions:
Question 1: Can a perennial grain yield as well as an annual grain? Annuals are traditionally used for their high productive capacity and edible yield. Perennials contain extensive root systems, which more readily soak up and contain rainwater. Self-fertilizing and self-weeding, perennials are generally more hardy than the annuals typically grown in monoculture in traditional agriculture practices today. But can perennials produce as much seed as an annual crop? The Land institute is showing yields for perennial grasses that range from 1,500 kg/ha to 2000 kg/ha (Illinois bundle flower) in an area where benchmark yield for Kansas winter heat is 1960 kg/ha. Each of the four groups have palatable qualities.
Gamagrass, for instance, contains a high-protein, large seed (27% to 30% protein and 7% fat), with baking properties similar to those of cornmeal. Hawkins, Lovins and Loving in their book Natural Capitalism claim that a “replacement of annual grains with perennial cereals that do not require annual tilling and replanting could eliminate up to half the soil erosion in the United States, saving nearly $20 billion worth of US soil and $9 billion worth of fuel for farm equipment every year.”
Question 2: Can a perennial polyculture overyield? Successful use of polycultures (instead of monocultures, traditionally used to provide high yields and uniform maturation time), avoids the “all or nothing” effect of crops of one variety and one stage at the mercy of the vicissitudes of nature in the form of droughts, floods, pests, hail and eroding soils. Polycultures, by virtue of their diversity and multiple stages in succession, are far more hardy against pests and able to withstand what nature deals out. And, perhaps, of far more import, polycultures alone are ecologically sustainable. But can polyculture yields stay even with or actually omveryield those of monocultures? Overyielding is common in traditional polyculture systems of Latin America, Africa and Asia. “Our biological research has shown the feasibility of a mixed perennial grain agriculture,” says Jackson. Experiments performed by the Land Institute support the persistence of over yielding in polyculture because of the synergistic and communal opportunities afforded by mixed crops, rather than the competition of monocultures.
Question 3: Can a perennial polyculture sponsor its own nitrogen fertility? The Land Institute and other researchers throughout North America provide indirect evidence of the benefit that a leguminous grain provides to companion species. In experiments with a leguminous grain (Illinois bundle flower), they showed that the legume compensated for low soil nitrogen without lowering its growth or seed yield. Within 3 to 5 years after establishment, these crops increased soil nitrate over plots containing only grasses.
Question 4: Can perennial polycultures defend themselves against insects, pests and weeds? Because most agricultural weeds are adapted to disturbed habitats, and can often outcompete the non-native crops for soil, water and nutrients, they become a chronic problem where soils are repeatedly tilled. The Land Institute and other researchers have found that perennial grain polycultures compete well against weeds because of their permanent canopy, deep and extensive root systems and vigorous regrowth in the spring. Intercropping of polycultures combines the weed-suppressing effects of different crops, by intercepting more light, water, and nutrients over monocultures; this eliminates the need for herbicide application. Hawkin, Lovins and Lovins describe how Japanese farmers can efficiently hand-sow and harvest their polycultures, “because an elegantly conceived sequence of plantings provides the weed control, composting, and other services automatically.”
When it comes to pests, the effect of perennial polyculture are not so clear. Although researchers have demonstrated that some polycultures are less susceptible to pests in what is known as “associational resistance”, they also found that, once established in a perennial system, pests suffer less soil disturbance and tend to prolong.
“We don’t need one more breakthrough in agriculture. We need to stare hard at [our] fields…then reach into the vast literature in evolutionary biology and ecology to learn the rules and laws at work on the land before we got here, and out of this knowledge, put together a new synthesis, a truly new paradigm for agriculture.”–Wes Jackson
1. Malcolm G. Scully, The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, February 18, 2000, Salina, Kansas.
2,3. Janine Benyus, Biomimicry, Quill William Morrow, New York, 1997, 308pg.
4, 5. The Land Institute Web Site: http://www.LandInstitute.org
6, 7. Paul Hawkin, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1999, 396pg.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.