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A Quiet Agricultural Revolution in Kansas

We all know how difficult it is to change even the smallest habits. Therefore, changing the well-established way of doing things in a global industry is incomparably more difficult. This is especially true in the agricultural sector with its handful of global corporations that have access to world’s best lawyers. The extremely low odds of successfully changing agriculture has not scared Wes Jackson, the founder of The Land Institute, from re-thinking the way humanity grows cereals, oil seeds, and legumes.

Wes experienced the energy crisis of the 1970's during his university studies and at that moment he made the decision to dedicate his life to decreasing U.S. dependence on crude oil and other fossil fuels. After much analysis, Jackson realized that agriculture was the sector in which he could make the greatest difference. Annual cultivation of land, spraying, and fertilization of monocultures not only requires significant amounts of energy inputs, but also causes earth erosion, pollution of rivers and oceans, and emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

The Land Institute was born over 40 years ago to remedy these environmental effects of agriculture. Based on around 1,000 acres of beautiful Kansas prairie just east of Salina, the Institute is on a constant mission to change the way the world grows cereals, oil seeds and legumes. The Institute aims to do this by pioneering a growth cycle which respects nature and therefore, does not have negative effect on the biodiversity.

The golden bullet in achieving this ambitious vision is to develop perennial crops which yield numerous years after being sown, not like annual crops, which must be re-sown yearly. The Land Institute started by focusing on perennial wheat using two methods well-known to any biologist: domestication of wild species with required characteristics – such as having a deep root system – and hybridization of annual cereals with wild species. After years of dedicated work, the Institute developed advanced perennial wheat to such a stage that it is currently being pre-commercialized in the U.S. under the marketing name of Kernza.

The Land Institute’s successes put it at the very forefront of innovation in the agricultural sector, though no one in Salina thinks about taking a rest, as there is still much left to be done. Firstly, work is still underway to further improve Kernza – especially by growing Kernza together with legumes, which remove nitrogen from the atmosphere. Secondly, the Institute is advancing its work on breeding perennial oil seed crop, which is based on the cousin of sunflower named Silphum. Finally, only last year the Institute started research into creation of the perennial legumes, which given the Institute’s track record, are sure to be a success in the near future.

When asked why the Institute does not yet work with the giants of the global agriculture such as seed or chemical businesses, the representative of the Institution answered that those institutions followed completely different philosophies: “they are all about patenting and charging farmers for their research. We will never patent our crops. Instead, we are fully committed to the prosperity of farmers and therefore, the prosperity of mankind.”

This profound statement shows the value of The Land Institute. By advancing sustainable agricultural technology with the intent of sharing it directly with farmers around the world, the Institute is playing a key role in keeping the developmental promise of agriculture. The Center for Industrial Development cheerfully supports work of the Institute and hopes perennial cereals, oil seeds and legumes will be a widely grown on farms thought the world.

Mateusz Ciasnocha is constantly on a mission to “unleash dormant potential.” He specializes in agriculture, energy, and Africa, and is also passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship. Mateusz currently studies at ESCP Europe Business School and the University of Oxford, where he is receiving a Masters in Energy Management and Philosophy Certificate, respectively.

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