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Sustainable agriculture may mean perennial food plants

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GROTON — People gathered at the Nashua River Watershed Association’s River Resource Center in Groton to hear professor Chris Picone talk about “Radical Sustainability: Agricultural Systems for the Next 10,000 Years.”

Many of those attending the Nov. 9 meeting were members of Groton Local, a grassroots organization seeking community solutions to global problems.

Picone grew up in Groton and spent time in Mexico and Peru before working with the Land Institute, a forward-thinking organization that develops agricultural systems that mimic natural ones. He’s now a faculty member of Fitchburg State College and teaches courses in conservation biology, ecology and environmental science.

“Agriculture has been a Faustian bargain,” Picone explained. Total food production has more than doubled since 1960, but this bounty has come with a host of problems. Our current crops are fragile and unstable, and can only persist with the aid of massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. This has resulted in our doubling the ‘nitrogen cycle’ of the world over the past 20 to 30 years, causing fishless dead zones in the oceans, and unknown damage from the chemicals in the pesticides. “That’s essentially a global uncontrolled experiment,” he said.

In addition, because most of our crops are annual plants, living for only one season then providing seed for the next, they have very small root systems. This causes massive erosion problems; one can see the eroded U.S. corn belt soil pouring into the gulf of Mexico just by looking at satellite pictures. Soil, Picone pointed out, “is not a renewable resource in the time frame we have to deal with,” nor are the fossil fuels needed to supply the annuals with fertilizer and pesticides.

So if our current crops are not sustainable, what is?

Picone and the Land Institute suggest that we look toward the hardiness of nature to find the answer.

“A vision for agriculture is to design something a bit more robust,” he said. Modeling farm crops after the complex systems found in nature will give us a “tool kit” to create an agricultural system that will support both us and the land far into the future.

Natural systems tend to be based on groups of different perennials rather than monocultures of one single plant, Picone pointed out. Perennials put much of their energy into survival; they have complex root systems and often have greenery showing above ground year-round. The trick is to coax them to produce enough seeds, or grain, to be viable as market crops. Picone is optimistic. “We’ve already got crops that are kind of close,” he said.

The Land Institute is working with the four types of perennials that currently make up more than 90 percent of the biomass on our prairies. By crossing and domesticating these plants, scientists hope to come up with high-producing perennials that can be managed much less invasively then what we rely on now.

Because of their strong roots and the constant ground cover they provide, perennials protect the land from erosion even during seasons when they are not providing seed for harvesting. Having a polyculture of hardy plants also means you don’t need to shore them up with pesticides, a practice at the root of many problems.

“The moral of the story,” Picone said, is that “perennial roots are the solution.”

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