I have long been interested in the work of the Land Institute and their perennial crops, so I appreciated this story about how people are trying to use them:
“Mainstream agriculture, they just don’t get it,” says Jerry Doan, standing by a mix of 20-plus cover crops from low-lying legumes to tall stalks of millet on his farm in Sterling, N.D. “You have got to feed the biology of the soil.”
It’s an international problem, with a third of the world’s soils already degraded, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, due to everything from erosion and salinization to untreated urban waste and mining. Here in the United States, a big concern is commercial agriculture, where evidence is growing that decades of an exclusive corn-soybean rotation has caused farmland to lose nutrients and its ability to hold and filter water.
The effects reach far beyond the farm to waterways and the grocery store. Because farmland doesn’t hold the nitrites and nitrates produced from fertilizers and herbicides, they leach into the water and find their way as far as the Gulf of Mexico, creating state-sized areas of low or no oxygen, which kills fish and other marine life. What’s more, the commercial vegetables at the grocery store have fewer nutrients than in the 1950s, according to several studies, in part because the soil has fewer nutrients they can take up.