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Synthesis/Regeneration 48   (Winter 2008)

Shrinking the Agricultural Economy Will Pay Big Dividends

by Stan Cox

The energy content of food produced for residents of the United States has risen from 3200 calories per person per day in the 1970s to almost 4000 today [1], approaching double the average daily requirement. Much of that is wasted. For many such reasons, shrinking the economic “throughput” of agriculture and associated industries can be a much more straightforward process than in other areas of human society, and it need not mean that anyone go undernourished.

The purpose of growing crops and pasture is to convert solar energy into food and other useful products. But as it is currently organized, US agriculture and the businesses it feeds absorb more energy in the form of fossil fuels and other resources than they capture from the sun. Reducing throughput would not only save energy, it could pay a host of other ecological dividends. That’s because as it stands, agriculture is the planet’s chief cause of soil erosion [2], biodiversity loss [3], and creation of coastal hypoxic areas, or “dead zones” [4].

US agriculture and the businesses it feeds absorb more energy in the form of fossil fuels and other resources than they capture from the sun.

Efforts to bring agriculture into line with ecological reality fall into two classes. Some efforts can be started today and will help get humanity through mid-century. Others (which also must be accelerated, and soon) will take longer to complete but will be necessary to sustain agriculture to the end of the century and beyond.

In the short run: go to the roots of the economy

The roots of every economy are largely in agriculture; ultimately, all economic activity depends on energy from the farm, the mine, or the well [5]. But farming differs qualitatively from industrial work in that it is tied closely to seasonal cycles and uncontrollable environmental fluctuations. That clearly isn’t the ideal pattern for efficient capital accumulation, so the past century has seen relentless efforts to mold agriculture into the factory model as closely as possible.

… the past century has seen relentless efforts to mold agriculture into the factory model …

But because of its dependence on natural cycles, the “factory farming” ideal can be realized in only the crudest ways. So a growing range of more easily regimented industries has been grafted onto an agricultural rootstock. Although we call American agriculture a “food system,” it generates food only as a by-product; the primary product is wealth to support companies that produce seed, machinery, fertilizer, pesticides, diesel fuel, and other inputs, and others that feed on the food leaving the farm. That leaves a lot of high-energy fat that could be cut.

Contributions of three agriculture-related sectors to the United States’ gross domestic product, in billions of dollars (adjusted for inflation), averaged over three 5-year periods [6].

The table below, based on figures from the government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, shows that agriculture’s contribution to the GDP, measured in real, inflation-adjusted dollars, has grown significantly over the past quarter-century but that the real action has been in industries that depend on the output from agriculture. The processing of raw agricultural products into food — what the government classifies as food “manufacturing” — has grown twice as fast as agriculture, and food service has grown almost four times as fast, much of that growth attributable to Americans’ increasing tendency to eat out. Compared with farming, which is bound to seasonal rhythms and natural processes, food processing and service are highly adaptable to organization along industrial lines. That brings greater capacity for economic growth.
PeriodAgricultureFood mfgFood service

Meanwhile, the value of food marketing — including packaging, labor, transportation, energy, advertising, profit, and other items — has risen even faster, reaching four times the value of the food produced on farms. Reductions that result in better quality of life for farmers, cut back or eliminate expensive, often harmful inputs, and shrink the food-processing and food-marketing economies are also likely to improve people’s nutrition and health and slow the degradation of soils and water.

Back on the farm, the current (and permanent) fuel crunch could provide the opening that’s needed to make some thoroughgoing changes: an end to the feedlot and animal-confinement industries and a reduction in meat consumption; replacement of grain cropping with ecologically well-managed perennial pasture and range; removing more of the most erodible land from production and establishing tree and grass buffers; using biological nitrogen fixation rather than industrially produced nitrogen; and reversing rural-to-urban human migration to help return the fertility in human and animal wastes to the soil.

And those working to reduce production in agriculture must now make common cause with those who are urging restraint in another area of the economy: transportation. Deep cuts in liquid fuel demand are needed, and until that happens, all biofuel production — whether it’s corn ethanol, soy biodiesel, or still-in-development cellulosic ethanol — will cut unnecessarily into current food-production capacity and, by damaging ecosystems, undermine our ability to produce food in the future [7].

Needed for the future: new hardware

But until we can effect a revolutionary change in the kinds of crops we grow, the palliative changes listed in the previous section will allow us to do no more than put a tourniquet on agriculture, in a grim attempt to slow the hemorrhaging of soil, water, nutrients, chemicals, and biodiversity. Researchers in organic and sustainable agriculture have, out of necessity, attempted to mitigate the impact of agriculture by improving the “software:” the application of experience, knowledge, techniques, and natural materials to existing annual crops. But those annual plant species require not only annual sowing of seed but also large inputs of energy and nutrients to be provided by the humans who nurse them through each season [8]. They represent a kind of dysfunctional “hardware” that limits what can be achieved with even the best agricultural “software.”

If humans are to have any good prospects well beyond this century, more than 90% of the planet’s landscapes must be returned to diverse, perennial vegetation [9], and that entails the replacement of annual grain monocultures with polycultures of perennial grains and oilseeds. With deep, permanent root structures, those new constellations of plants, like natural plant communities, would foster vast, diverse communities of soil organisms that can micromanage ecological processes — processes we currently attempt to macro-manage with big, blunt instruments like machinery, chemicals, or truckloads of manure and mulch [10].

… more than 90% of the planet’s landscapes must be returned to diverse, perennial vegetation …

Three-fourths of the world’s food-producing land is under grains and oilseed crops, and those species make up a similar portion of the human diet (directly in much of the world, via grain-fed animals in this country) [11]. Essential for providing vitamins, minerals, and other compounds, a highly varied diet is important; vegetable gardens and other intensive-agriculture systems around the world help provide such diversity. But with a world population now approaching seven billion people and most good cropland already in use, only cereals and grain legumes are productive and durable enough to provide the dietary foundation of calories and protein. By developing perennial grain crops, plant breeders could help dramatically enlarge that portion of the agricultural landscape that is kept intact by perennial roots. With a few very small-scale exceptions, no perennial cereal, pulse, or oilseed crops currently exist. Through a well-coordinated, long-term plant breeding effort, that hole in humanity’s crop inventory can be filled.

Perennial grain crops are being developed through plant breeding by research groups in the United States, Australia, and China. My colleague Lee DeHaan has shown how plant breeding in a wide range of seed-producing species and inter-species hybrids can increase seed yield while maintaining perenniality [12]. Genetic selection in the field (no biotechnology required) has the potential to generate perennial grain crops with acceptable yields, if it is applied to agronomic traits and perennial growth habit simultaneously. This is suggested by four characteristics of perennial plants that differentiate them from annuals and provide them with extra resources that can be re-allocated to grain production [13]:

Plant breeding in the service of nature

These are some of the perennial crops under development at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas [14] and by cooperating institutions :

Intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) is a perennial relative of wheat (Triticum aestivum). We are domesticating this species by breeding for increased seed size, seed yield, and ability to thresh freely. Experiments have shown that the first round of selection increased mean yield by about 18% and mean seed size by about 10%. Some individual families are much larger. In a separate population, four fast cycles have increased the fraction of free-threshing seed from about 8% to around 30%.

Wheat and triticale (X. triticosecale) can be hybridized with several different perennial species. Researchers at The Land Institute and Washington State University have crossed these annual species with perennial relatives and backcrossed to the annual to produce thousands of relatively fertile, large-seeded plants.

Grain sorghum, a drought-hardy feed grain in the US and a staple food in Africa and South Asia, can be hybridized with the perennial species Sorghum halepense. We have produced large plant populations from hundreds of such hybrids. The better strains currently produce about 40% of the grain yield of their annual grain sorghum parents, and their seed is about half the size of grain sorghum’s.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoiensis) is a native prairie legume that produces relatively large harvests of protein-rich seed (Kulakow, 1999). The Land Institute has assembled a large collection of seed from a wide geographical area and initiated a breeding program. Selection criteria will include seed retention until harvest, high seed yield, and better seed quality.

Maximilian sunflower (H. maximiliani) and Kansas rosinseed (Silphium integrifolium) are native perennials related to sunflower. The Land Institute is in the process of domesticating these species as perennial oilseed crops.

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the highly productive annual oilseed crop, can be hybridized with several perennial species in its genus, including Maximilian sunflower, rigid-leaf sunflower (H. rigidus), and Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosus). Large perennial populations have been produced, and they are being subjected to selection for greater seed fertility.

Perennial upland rice is being developed by a group at China’s Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences from crosses between standard Asian rice (Oryza sativa) and two wild perennial species (O. longistaminata and O. rufipogon).

There are many more groups of species that could be used to develop perennial grains [15].

The perennial grain crops listed above, and others, are intended to be grown in a food-producing system that replicates as closely as possible the ecological functioning of the natural landscape it replaces — in The Land Institute’s case, the prairie grassland. In other regions, different sets of perennial crops can be used with similar effect, to be as hardy and resilient as a forest or a savannah or whatever ecosystem preceded human habitation in a given region. What all such future systems have in common is that they will be based on perennial plant communities with ample genetic diversity both among and within species, and that the energy that supports them will be supplied by the sunlight that falls directly on them. They must function independently of fossil energy and synthetic chemicals.

An essential part of plant breeding is selection in successive generations under a range of environmental conditions. Therefore, even in long-established annual grain crops, it takes many years from the time a cross-pollination is made until farmers are growing a new variety. (After a quarter century, the hope that biotechnology will shortcut that process remains just that: an unfocused hope.) Some perennial grains, like intermediate wheatgrass, will be ready for the field in a decade or two. Other crops will take longer to develop.

Some perennial grains, like intermediate wheatgrass, will be ready for the field in a decade or two.

Agriculture can be made supportable in the short term by tightening up the wasteful food economy and protecting nature from the worst impacts of extensive agriculture. But to ensure that food production is sustainable through the end of this century and beyond, the widespread conversion to perenniality and diversity is essential.


1. USDA Economic Research Service, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FoodConsumption/NutrientAvailIndex.htm

2. Jackson, W. 1980. New Roots for Agriculture. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth.

3. Cassman, K.G. & Wood, S. 2005. Cultivated systems. In Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, pp. 741–876. Island Press, Washington, DC.

4. Turner, R. E. & N. N. Rabalais. 2003. Linking landscape and water quality in the Mississippi River basin for 200 years. BioScience 53: 563–572.

5. “The issue of returns boils down to that of returns in mining and in agriculture. There is, though, a difference between returns in mining and returns in agriculture. In mining, we tap the stocks of various forms of low entropy contained in the crust of the planet on which we live; in agriculture, we tap primarily the flow of low entropy that reaches the earth as solar radiation.” Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The entropy law and the economic process, Harvard University Press, 1971

6. Numbers may be found in Cox, S. 2008. Sick Planet: Corporate food and medicine. Pluto Press

7. Cox, S, Drive 1,000 miles or feed a person for a year? AlterNet, May 9, 2008, http://www.alternet.org/water/84628/

8. Glover, J.D., Cox, C.M., & Reganold, J.P. 2007. Future of farming: A return to roots? Scientific American, August, 2007: 66¬73. And see Stan Cox, Broken agriculture, for why home gardening is important but not sufficient. http://www.counterpunch.org/cox05312008.html

9. Chiras, D.D., & Reganold, J.P. 2004. Natural resource conservation: Management for a sustainable future, 9th ed. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

10. From Georgescu-Roegen, The entropy law and the economic process, which came to be the founding document of ecological economics: “It would be a mistake, however, to believe that the practice of manuring can defeat the Entropy Law and transform the production of food into a pendulum motion … The low entropy on which life feeds includes not only the low entropy transmitted by the sun but that of the terrestrial environment as well. Otherwise, the paradise for living creatures would be the sunny Sahara. The degradation of the soil with manuring is certainly slower than without it, so much slower that it would not strike us immediately. But this is no reason for ignoring this factor in a broader perspective of what has happened and what will happen in the future in the production of food.” In other words, manuring is not recycling but “downcycling.”

11. FAO, 2005. Agricultural Data. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (1-16-2006; http://faostat.fao.org/faostat/ )

12. DeHaan, L.R., Van Tassel, D.L., and Cox, T.S. 2005. Perennial grain crops: A synthesis of ecology and plant breeding. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 20: 5-14.

13. Cox, T.S., Glover, J.G., Van Tassel, D.L., Cox, C.M., & DeHaan, L.R. 2006. Prospects for developing perennial grain crops. BioScience 56: 649–659.

14. http:\\www.landinstitute.org

15. Cox, T.S., Bender, M., Picone, C., Van Tassel, D.L., Holland, J.B., Brummer, C.E., Zoeller, B.E., Paterson, A.H., & Jackson, W. 2002. Breeding perennial grain crops. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 21: 59-91.

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, formerly a geneticist for USDA. He breeds perennial grain crops for sustainable systems. His book Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine was published in March, 2008.

[17 dec 08]

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