These Kansans See A Way To Fight Climate Change By Breeding Ecofriendly Crops

May 18, 2021

SALINA, Kansas — Ebony Murell and a few interns meticulously sort 99 kinds of silphium. It’s a wild relative to a sunflower. And the biologists at The Land Institute — an outfit devoted to finding out how science can make farming more planet-friendly — want to unravel the plant’s secrets for tolerating bugs and diseases.

“We don’t know what all of these traits mean in terms of plant defenses,” Murell said. “Any or all of them could matter.”

The thousands of data points collected about bug resistance make up just one small part of the larger goal of developing the wild silphium into a perennial crop farmers can plant and harvest for seed oil.

Unlike annually planted crops such as wheat, corn and sorghum, perennial crops more closely mimic how a natural prairie works. Instead of planting new seed every year, farmers can plant once and expect years of harvests.

About 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of natural ecosystems comes from agriculture. But the 50 or so researchers at The Land Institute think they can show farmers how to reduce their carbon footprint.

Murell said the deep root systems of perennial agriculture mimic natural prairie. They stop erosion and rebuild the soil.

It’s all about the roots

All plants are natural carbon scrubbers. They take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into leaves and flowers and grain. But it’s the roots that really matter. They take the carbon from the air and turn it into dirt.

The bigger and deeper the roots, the more carbon is sequestered.

So diets based on perennial grains would tread more lightly on the earth than the plant-harvest-plant pattern that defines most farming.

“This is the best opportunity we have to save the soils and still produce food,” said Tiffany Durr, the Land Institute’s greenhouse manager.

Some Land Institute projects attempt to domesticate wild perennial plants, like with silphium. But it’s also working on perennializing existing annual crops such as wheat and sorghum — all through selective breeding.

It’s a daunting task.

The Land Institute has been working on developing perennial grains since 1976. So far, none of its work is widely used among farmers.

Durr gets the skepticism.

“We’re hippieville out here doing something, they don’t know what,” she said. “People didn’t understand that there was real science going on — big hope, grounded in real science.”

A field of Kernza perennial grains at the Land Institute.
Credit Brian Grimmett / Kansas News Service

  The rise of Kernza

Some of that science is beginning to pay off. Kernza is an intermediate wheatgrass developed by the Land Institute that can be used in similar ways to wheat. Durr said it’s finally gotten to the point where it’s getting mainstream attention and major academic research partners. In fact, right now you can actually buy Kernza flour.

“It’s not just a big, pie-in-the-sky idea.” Durr said. “It’s tangible, it’s real and there’s a lot more excitement.”

But challenges remain. Annual crops such as wheat put their energy into making bigger seeds, rather than developing root systems.

“The challenge that the Land Institute and others are trying to do: Can you have a perennial system that would maintain the roots, but yet produce seed?” said Kansas State University soil microbiologist Chuck Rice. “Can you have your cake and eat it too?”

He said perennial crops accomplish what they already know about better farming and conservation practices — don’t till up the ground, keep it covered with some plant growth between crops, and increase the diversity of what’s planted — in one convenient package.

“This is in my mind a workable solution,” Murrell said. “And that’s what motivates me to want to plant hundreds of plants in a greenhouse and try to do these crazy experiments that are so hard.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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