Jaxon grew up on the family farm in central Illinois, learning about irrigation and fertilizer and pesticide application at his grandfather’s side. Today, he is part of the “next wave” of farmers seeking sustainable solutions to improve the land for the next generation. Danforth Center scientists want to help…

Food security is about feeding people, but it is also about being responsible stewards of the natural resources on which all agriculture depends, such as water and topsoil. Agriculture today is the world’s largest ecosystem and the leading cause of biodiversity loss. It uses too much water, requires too many inputs, and erodes the topsoil. It just isn’t sustainable.

Over the last 10,000 years, humans have domesticated a few thousand plants. Today, only a handful of crops provide the majority of all human food. Contemporary crops were selected primarily based on what they produced for humans. Danforth Center scientists are asking:

What if we developed crops that could feed people and help the environment too?

Toward Sustainable Ag

Danforth Center scientists in the lab of Allison Miller, Ph.D., are part of a project that seeks to identify wild perennial plant species that are strong candidates for growth as food crops.

Perennial plants live for multiple years and can be harvested many times over the course of their lifetimes. They offer many potential benefits in agriculture. They reduce tilling, thus reducing both production costs and erosion. They increase season-over-season yield.

Perennials also create deep root systems, which fix carbon, reduce water needs, and help restore soil health.

Perennial roots compared to annual crops across four seasons. Image © The Land Institute

Many perennial crops already exist in agriculture, such as fruit trees and some animal forage like alfalfa. However, nearly 70 percent of farmland is currently dedicated to annual agriculture, mostly in grasses (cereals), legumes (soy, beans), and oilseeds (sunflower, flax, etc.).

Imagine the positive environmental impact if we could convert even a fraction of crops to perennial varieties.

Allison Miller, PhD Danforth Center Principal Investigator