Sustainable sunflowers

David Van TasselDavid Van Tassel is on a quest to save the earth one sunflower seed at a time. He and his fellow researchers at The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., are attempting to breed and grow new perennial varieties of sunflowers and other major crops that will require less water, energy and chemicals than today’s annual commercial crops. Fast food this is not. They hope to share their seeds with the world sometime in the next 25 to 50 years.

The son of Free Methodist missionaries, Van Tassel grew up in Hong Kong and graduated from George Fox in 1991 as a biology major. After earning a PhD in plant biology from the University of California at Davis, he sought a job in sustainable agriculture. He joined The Land Institute in 1997, a move that also allowed his wife Kristin (Potts) (G91) – now an English professor at nearby Bethany College – to return to her home state.

The strategy of The Land Institute (landinstitute.org) begins with the native prairie species that grew throughout the Midwest long before the plow arrived. The perennial grasses, sunflowers and Illinois bundle flower grew deep roots that prevented erosion and allowed them to survive drought and harsh winters. Over time they recycled the soil nutrients and helped build the topsoil. In contrast, today’s high-yielding annual crops can deplete the land of nutrients within a few years, a major problem in many parts of the world with marginal farmland. A part of the solution, according to The Land Institute, is to create perennial crops that are as productive as today’s annual crops, but require far less fertilizer, irrigation and erosion-causing tilling. A crop of this type might require replanting just once every 10 to 15 years.

Sunflower fieldVan Tassel’s plant-breeding work began with wheat and sorghum, but his focus now is on a protein-rich legume called Illinois bundle flower and sunflowers, which are used to make cooking oil – a vital part of nutrition for the world’s poor.

He’s attempting to cross commercial annual crops with their wild perennial relatives. “It’s like crossing a lion and a tiger,” he said. Only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of crosses are successful and produce seeds. He compares the process to dealing out a shuffled deck of cards. “Occasionally you get a good hand. If you grow enough, you get seeds.”

Van Tassel also is attempting to domesticate the wild perennials by selecting the plants with the most desirable traits, such as big abundant seeds and easy harvesting. “Basically, you grow huge numbers of plants and pick out the weird ones,” he said. He cross-pollinates these plants, raises their progeny, again selects the most promising plants with the most desirable traits, and repeats the cycle over and over. Each cycle can take two or three years.

Patience and a strong work ethic are mandatory at The Land Institute. These are scientists who get dirt under their fingernails. He collected many of his original seeds from state parks, backyards and roadsides. His days are often spent battling weeds and marauding pests. “It’s often more perspiration than inspiration,” he said.

If his sweat pays off, the world will be closer to having a sustainable source of food.