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Innovation Holds the Key to Healthy Food, Clean Water

October 19, 2017
How advances in science, policy and conservation partnerships can create a sustainable future

When I think about the future of agriculture in our country, I envision an industry that not only grows abundant, heathy food but produces fresh water for communities and healthy rivers for us all.

One way we’ll get there is through innovation.

Every day there are opportunities to invest in companies that are producing healthy food with a smaller environmental footprint, in technologies that help farmers save money and grow better crops, and in business models that increase access to healthy foods.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we have been working to expand the conversation about the role that food and agriculture policy can play in protecting the environment and producing healthier, more nutritious food. We believe in taking better care of the soil – and in farming practices that reduce erosion, build soil health and lead to a more environmentally and economically resilient system.

To build a better agricultural and food system, we need to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of farmers, companies and nonprofit organizations that are at the forefront of change. We need to have conversations that bring together a spectrum of stakeholders – traditional and organic row crop farmers, urban farmers and food companies who understand that, in order to feed the world and be responsible stewards of the lands, we must continue to transition toward sustainable, soil building agriculture.

The Land Institute is one group the foundation is working with to drive agricultural innovation. The institute is using advanced breeding techniques to develop new perennial crops that could dramatically improve the way that we grow grains.

To build a better agricultural and food system, we need to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of farmers, companies and nonprofit organizations that are at the forefront of change.

Most crops grown in the United States are annual crops, which must be planted each spring and harvested each fall. Perennials, on the other hand, are planted once and then harvested for several years. These perennial crops can be grown with reduced fertilizer and require less tillage that disturbs the soil.

The end result: Improved water quality, soil health and reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production.

I recently visited The Land Institute in Kansas and was surprised at how efficient and environmentally-friendly these perennial crops can be. Their roots can reach up to 30 feet into the ground. These roots systems serve the plants well, allowing them to access water and nutrients deep in the soil and protecting them against droughts that can destroy less resilient annual crops.

While in Kansas, I was also able to see the latest test plots for Kernza, one of these new crops.

Kernza, which is native to Eurasia, is similar to wheat but grows perennially. The Land Institute is using new techniques in plant breeding to increase yield, seed size, disease resistance and other traits that will make Kernza easier to grow and more useful as a wheat substitute.

While Kernza will not be widely available until 2019, food producers are already experimenting with how to incorporate it into bread, noodles, other baked goods and even beer.

Kernza is a new crop similar to wheat that is being developed for human consumption.

Over the next 10 years, Kernza and other perennial crops being developed by the institute could be a game changer for Midwestern agriculture – allowing farmers to grow a grain that actually improves water quality and stores carbon in the soil.

The innovations aren’t limited to crop science.

The foundation is also working to bring drinking water utilities into the conversation about how to shape a more sustainable agriculture and food policy.

As a philanthropic organization focused on healthy rivers, we know that safe, clean water is a high priority for communities across the county. In the Midwest, one of the key threats to drinking water is nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff. The United States Geological Survey identifies parts of Illinois, Indiana and Iowa at high risk because intensive crop production is polluting shallow ground water.

In Illinois, the foundation is working with The Nature Conservancy and the city of Bloomington to develop a new partnership that would engage farmers to reduce nitrogen pollution at the source rather than increasing treatment downstream. The project is designed to test the idea that it will be cheaper to stop pollution from entering the water than to take it out later. Together, The Nature Conservancy and Bloomington are developing a plan to find the farmers and the conservation practices that can reduce nutrient pollution the most.

These projects are building a new, healthier future for food and agriculture.

As Congress begins work to reauthorize the Farm Bill in 2018, we need to harvest the lessons being learned on the ground, by those working to push the boundaries of innovation. By bringing these new voices to a bigger table, all of us can better understand the future potential in nutritious, sustainably produced food and build these innovations into our food and agriculture policy.

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