Evolution is often portrayed as a straightforward process, by myself in addition to others. Add those three simple ingredients—variation, selection, and replication—and poof! Organisms become well-adapted to their environments.
In reality, evolution is often much more complex, to the point of not taking place at all or even resulting in maladaptive outcomes. One complication is when an adaptation consists of multiple traits that must evolve in coordination with each other. Another complication is when multiple traits are tied together by developmental processes and are difficult to decouple. Still another complication is when the environment varies, either arbitrarily or in a frequency-dependent fashion.
Two visual metaphors—adaptive landscapes from evolutionary theory and basins of attraction from complex systems theory, convey some of these complications. With adaptive landscapes, selection is envisioned as an upward force in a landscape with many peaks and valleys. Climbing up the slope of a hill is straightforward but getting from one peak to another is more difficult. With basins of attraction, gravity is envisioned as a downward force in a landscape that consists of multiple adjacent basins. Falling into a given basin is straightforward but moving between basins is more difficult. Even these metaphors fail to convey the complexity of real-world systems, such as non-equilibrium dynamics that do not settle into any basin and frequency-dependent processes that turn peaks into valleys.
All of these complications apply to cultural evolution in addition to genetic evolution. Take regenerative agriculture as an example. Past cultural evolution has resulted in means of food production that are highly adaptive by some criteria (e.g., corporate profits and efficiency of production) but highly maladaptive by other criteria (e.g., loss of biodiversity, crowding out small and middle-size farms, loss of soil, contributing to climate change and flooding, toxins in the environment). Regenerative agriculture is an alternative system of agriculture that is more systemic in its goals, including closing the carbon cycle, building up the soil, improving the water cycle, increasing biodiversity, and fostering thriving human communities.
Assume, for a moment, that a broad coalition came together to bring regenerative agriculture into being. How would they go about doing it? One step might be to develop a number of perennial crops that do not require tilling the soil on an annual basis. But how can a market be created for these crops and where is the supply chain to get them from farm to table? How can farmers be persuaded to take a gamble on transitioning, especially when it makes them different from their neighbors? How can the multiple objectives of regenerative agriculture be achieved when many of them are likely to trade off against each other?
This thought experiment reveals that managing the cultural evolution of an entirely new system of agriculture will be a daunting challenge. But it isn’t a thought experiment. An initiative at the University of Minnesota called Forever Green, headed by Professor Nicholas R. Jordan, has actually assembled a broad coalition that includes Prosocial World (PW), the nonprofit organization that I preside over.
Not only will Forever Green be one of the most ambitious efforts to transition from conventional farming practices to regenerative agriculture, but it will be explicitly framed in terms of stewarded cultural evolution. This is due not only to the participation of myself and my PW colleagues, but also Jordan’s training in evolutionary biology, a long tradition of animal and plant breeding in agricultural science, and an equally long tradition of agricultural innovation studies.
David Sloan Wilson (DSW): Greetings, Nick! I’m looking forward to presenting the amazing project that you are spearheading to the world. Let’s begin with your own personal background and academic training. Why did you become interested in regenerative agriculture? How did your training combine both basic evolutionary biology and animal and plant breeding?
Nicholas R. Jordan (NRJ): I had several rich experiences as a young teenager that shaped my life and interests. First, my mother—then working as a pediatrician in a rural Massachusetts town—somehow correctly intuited that I would enjoy working on a vegetable farm for the summer (of 1968). I was fascinated by the plants, by working with my fellow farmhands, and by the humanity and savoir-faire of Mr. Henderson, the farmer, and my employer. I have a letter of recommendation from him on hand, ready for use someday. Secondly, my mother brought home a copy of Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which opened my eyes to botany, natural history, ethnobotany, and the intertwining of plants and human cuisine and culture. Suddenly, I was acutely aware that a) I knew the names of very few of the plants around me and b) I keenly wished to remedy this situation. I set about learning about plants, observing their ecology, associated insects and etc. I had influential teachers in 8th-12th grades who reinforced all of these interests. My high-school teachers had doctorates in ecology and evolution. One of them would take us (half a dozen passionate students) on long excursions to warm climates during the school’s winter term, which encouraged study out-of-school. I had the opportunity to sit around campfires for weeks every year of high school, interrogating my teacher about ecology and evolution. And I read a fair bit of natural history, esp. about reptiles and amphibians, which had become another passion. And I kept on learning plants. I also started growing vegetables. I then continued to focus on evolution and ecology at Harvard College and was influenced by Richard Lewontin, an evolutionary biologist and faculty member who paid attention to agriculture, which was otherwise not much on the radar screen at Harvard. I got a Ph.D. in botany and genetics at Duke, spent time with students and faculty at NC State, and at that point, my interest in agroecology and especially evolutionary processes in agroecosystems had come into focus.
DSW: Wow—that’s education as it should be! I also went through a Euell Gibbons phase. I still remember the Day Lily tubers that weren’t quite as delicious as he said they would be. Now let’s define the basic concept of regenerative agriculture. What would you like to add to my brief description?
NRJ: Regenerative agriculture is a fairly recent term, and yet has acquired a range of meanings. Most commonly, it refers to agricultural production methods that protect soil by minimizing disturbance, maintaining plant residue cover on soil, providing living and active roots in soil for as much of the annual cycle as possible, and diversifying agricultural plant communities. These methods, if practiced consistently, can increase “soil health”, by building soil organic matter and soil biological communities, which in turn enhance beneficial ecological processes often referred to as “soil services”, which include nutrient cycling that efficiently supports crop production with minimal export of nutrients beyond the agroecosystem, storage of rainwater, provision of habitat for beneficial biodiversity, and others.
This is a somewhat narrow and reductive definition, however. Regenerative agriculture can also be understood as approaches to farming and agriculture that enhance other forms of health, including of ecosystems in agriculture landscapes, of water in these landscapes, and of human communities and economies. The fundamental idea of regenerative agriculture is a notion of healing – on the premise that earlier and current forms of agriculture have broadly damaged the forms of health that I’ve mentioned. Broadly, regenerative agriculture aims to redress this legacy of damage.
DSW: Before we get to the main event, which is the coalition that you have assembled and the systemic effort that is about to take place, it’s important to note that current agricultural practices were brought about by a systemic effort involving federal and state governments, land grant universities, and agricultural corporations. Also, some of the most classic studies of the diffusion of innovations have been on agricultural innovations such as new corn varieties1. Does the extensive and conscious effort that led to the current system hold lessons for transitioning to a new system?
NRJ: I certainly think so, and it is very important to be conscious of and critically reflective on this history, as my friend and colleague Scott Peters has done throughout his work.
DSW: Indeed! My TVOL conversation and podcast with Scott nicely complements our conversation.
NRJ: In brief, we now live in an era of awareness of the consequences of agricultural and food systems. In the past, this awareness was understandably less developed, and so the boundaries of concern were more narrow, focusing on the quantity of food production, with less concern about the impacts of production on the biophysical environment and on people—from workers in agriculture and food systems to food-related aspects of wellbeing, such as food-related illness and over-and-under-nutrition.
Now agricultural innovators are becoming more aware of tradeoffs associated with agricultural innovations – i.e., the mixture of beneficiaries and victims that result from the scaling of innovations. It, therefore, behooves innovators to be more careful to perceive and anticipate such tradeoffs and potential impacts on beneficiaries and victims. It is also important to be more democratic, by engaging these groups in the governance of innovation and more responsive to democratic governance of innovation. These principles of anticipation, democracy, and inclusion are pillars of so-called “responsible innovation”, an emerging practice that is very relevant to the work of our project on regenerative agriculture.
DSW: I want to underscore the generality of the points you have just made. In my own writing, I distinguish two meanings of the term complex adaptive system: A complex system that is adaptive as a system (CAS1), and a complex system composed of agents following their respective adaptive strategies (CAS2)2. The main take-home message is that CAS2 systems do not robustly self-organize into CAS1 systems. Put another way, Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand, which magically permutes lower-level self-interest into the higher-order common good, is profoundly untrue except in the narrowest of contexts. For a complex system to become adaptive as a whole system, it must be selected as a whole system.
Applying these generalities to regenerative agriculture, the current agricultural system is a CAS2 system. Various agents within the system are pursuing separate adaptive strategies in ways that do not make the system adaptive as a whole. It is important to stress that the pathologies of CAS2 systems do not necessarily reflect bad intentions. A particular agent within the system might have the best of intentions (for example, feeding the world or operating under the assumptions of the shareholder value model), which are nevertheless subverted by unforeseen consequences. Once we grasp the fundamental insight that system-level adaptation requires system-level selection, we can become more effective at converting our current CAS2 system into a CAS1 system.
This is my own evolutionary interpretation of what you are trying to do. Tell us about the coalition you have assembled to transition to regenerative agriculture in the American Midwest.
NRJ: The Forever Green Partnership is a multi-sector partnership working to advance year-round productive living cover or “Continuous Living Cover” on farmland. The Partnership unites members from private, public, and advocacy sectors around a common interest in increasing Continuous Living Cover in agriculture to capitalize on its many economic and environmental benefits. We work to diversify and strengthen Midwestern agriculture by adding crops that can grow in fall and spring as well as summer and can thrive on slopes and other locations where row crops struggle. Convened and hosted by the University of Minnesota, the Partnership seeks to be inclusive and enhance equity and diversity as it increases Continuous Living Cover. The Forever Green Partnership has organized two major collaborative projects that engage public, private, and advocacy sectors to add value to the extensive research and development and commercialization work being done on Continuous Living Cover crops. The Steering Council brings thought and action leaders in public, private, and advocacy sectors together to resource, build and evaluate scalable Continuous Living Cover systems that will enhance economic, environmental, and social aspects of agriculture. The Learning and Experimentation Network brings people from a variety of on-the-ground projects together to learn from experience and share what works in efforts to commercialize and expand Continuous Living Cover agriculture.
As you know, the Partnership is exploring an explicitly evolutionary strategy for change, entailing intentional processes of concerted cultural evolution across the sectors and scales of activity encompassed by the Partnership. Specifically, we are approaching continuous-living-cover agriculture as a cultural phenomenon, integrating both biophysical dimensions (what we grow and how we grow it) and many social dimensions, including economy, knowledge, politics, among others.
DSW: Right! Thanks to your own evolutionary background and the involvement of PW, this project is framed explicitly as an effort to manage variation-selection-replication processes in multiple contexts and at multiple scales. Let’s focus on a major component of the project, which is the development of a novel perennial grain crop, intermediate wheatgrass, known commercially as Kernza®. This objective has both a genetic and cultural component. Developing intermediate wheatgrass is an exercise in genetic evolution, while commercialization and widespread adoption of Kernza® is an exercise in human cultural evolution. In both cases, evolution could be relatively straightforward, like climbing the slope of a single peak, but is likely to be more complex, like navigating a rugged adaptive landscape. So, let’s tell the same story twice; first for the development of the wheat variety (genetic evolution) and again for its adoption (cultural evolution).
NRJ: This work is a de novo development of a grain crop. Intermediate wheatgrass has been previously domesticated as a perennial grass for use as a forage crop and in managed grassland, but the seeds of this form of the species are small (about the size of lawngrass seed) and make for a very poor sort of grain! Development of the species as a grain crop was begun about 30 years ago by the Rodale Research Institute. That effort ran out of steam, but the baton was picked up by the Land Institute, core members of the Forever Green network. The University of Minnesota began collaborating with the TLI on breeding, agronomy, and agroecology research ca. 2012, and in 2020 the Kernza CAP (collaborative agriculture project) was founded, funded by a $10 million, five-year grant from the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) funding program. I mention this grant because the SAS funding program explicitly (and admirably) calls for “transdisciplinary” projects that will develop novel systems by which agricultural sustainability goals can be advanced. The Kernza CAP addresses this call with a work plan that advances both the genetic development of Kernza and its commercialization and scaling. The latter is not explicitly framed as a project of intentional cultural evolution but the CAP’s work plan is clearly compatible with such a project.
In terms of the metaphor of “navigating a rugged adaptive landscape”, a certain amount of navigation has indeed been required in the genetic advancement of intermediate wheatgrass. Initially, the goal was straightforward – improving seed size in the hope of producing a respectable grain. Impressive progress in that regard has been made. Now, other key traits have come into play in addition to grain size. These include yield and its temporal duration – current levels of seed grain yield are only about 1/3 of those of annual wheat, per unit land area, and this yield begins to decline substantially after the third year of production. Other traits become of potential interest, such as the viability of the crop as a forage crop for ca. 6-8 months after harvest and before flowering begins the next year. The crop might also be viable for the production of protein concentrates from biomass, as technologies for the production of such concentrates from juices expressed from harvested herbage of perennial grasses are rapidly maturing. Of course, regional and local adaptation will become important goals as the geographic range of production expands. More broadly, integrative breeding programs are now emerging globally as a means of advancing crops for diversified agroecosystems. These entail the integration of genomic and conventional methods with participatory breeding methods in which farmers and other actors in supply/value chains join as integral members of the breeding program. These strategies may offer important means to reduce the cost and time periods associated with breeding for diversification crops. Thus, we see a broad “complexification” of intermediate wheatgrass, in which new goals, methods, and actors are coming into play together. While this dynamic represents a major increase in the base of resources advancing IWG, this also moves IWG development towards a CAS2 situation, in terms of your typology above.
DSW: Thanks! Your account goes a long way toward describing the complexities of consciously directed genetic evolution, which inherently has a human cultural component. Now for more on consciously directed human cultural evolution!
NRJ: When it comes to the commercialization and widespread adoption of Kernza® as an exercise in human cultural evolution, a few twists and turns have occurred in this work as well. The initial development of a supply/value chain for Kernza was entrusted to a contracted firm, which proved unable to manage this. At the same time (ca. 2018), General Mills stepped forward with a well-publicized project of initial commercialization, developing a breakfast cereal (Kernza Honey Crunch!). It quickly became clear that there wasn’t nearly enough Kernza to allow the launch of a product; instead, a limited run of the Crunch occurred, with generally favorable “reviews” from informed observers of the effort. At the same time, it was widely reported that “crop failure” was the basis of the perceived pulling-back of General Mills; in reality, the failure was to realistically project the available supply of Kernza grain; this was a failure of intermediation between farmers and General Mills, not a failure of the crop to grow and yield as anticipated. However, this “bad PR” continues to reverberate, 2-3 years later. In response, it became clear to the developers of intermediate wheatgrass—in terms of its genetics, agronomy, and agroecology—needed to take the reins of the commercialization of Kernza. Therefore TLI and UMN undertook a very closely collaborative commercialization and scaling project, supported by dedicated staff members at each organization, and now amplified and funded by the Kernza CAP. This effort has embraced concerted cultural evolution as a working strategy for commercialization and scaling and is now implementing that strategy. In practice, this means developing a set of pilot supply/value chain projects across a range of sites differing in biophysical and social factors, developing a capacity for these projects (which can be seen as units of cultural evolution) to be differentially rewarded with further investment on the basis of their success, and for key elements of these projects to “recombine” to further advance their success. Finally, the Kernza commercialization effort has affiliated with a broader project, as described above, to use concerted cultural evolution to accelerate the commercialization and scaling of a portfolio of novel crops and agroecosystems for Continuous Living Cover agriculture in the US Midwest.
DSW: Speaking for myself, it is humbling to have an opportunity to become involved in this project and then come face to face with its complexity. I want to learn more about the involvement of major corporations such as General Mills, federal agencies such as the USDA, and state-level organizations such as the University of Minnesota and its cooperative extension service. It is easy to classify them as the enemy responsible for the problems, but is there a sense in which they sincerely want to become involved in finding the solutions? To what extent are we dealing with a conflict of interest situation (e.g., based on profit motives in the case of corporations), as opposed to a “wicked common problem” situation?
NRJ: I have no doubt that the firms and institutions you mention are sincerely interested in contributing to systemic solutions to grand challenges facing agriculture and food systems. First, their customers and clients are increasingly demanding action on these challenges. Second, all recognize that they have other practical interests in responding to these challenges. For example, major food manufacturers have identified substantial climate-related risks to their operations. Finally, and critically, many persons working in these situations feel personally motivated, as conscientious members of society, to strive to respond to these challenges. Of course, all of these institutions and firms face tradeoffs between future-facing investments and the imperatives of present-day operations and clientele. And of course these tradeoffs constraint participation in cross-sector initiatives; however, I believe that institutions and firms increasingly recognize that they have a vital interest in managing these tradeoffs so as to balance the needs of the future with the needs of the present. That said, we see increasing investment in such initiatives by actors in these firms and institutions. A particularly important manifestation of this investment is a willingness to engage in sustained efforts to determine how new crops and commodities from diversified agroecosystems can be integrated into the supply/value chains that are at the heart of these firms’ operations. Engagement in such efforts is now going well beyond staff focusing on sustainability programs, to engage core technical personnel whose expert judgment is needed to guide such integration, which is very complex and multifaceted.
DSW: That is very encouraging. Now let’s focus on your current and future efforts at consciously directed evolution. Who are the stakeholders and what are the resources that you have brought together? What do you think that Prosocial World adds to the collective enterprise?
NRJ: Our working hypothesis is that conscious facilitation of all of the elements of intentional cultural evolution will accelerate the transformational changes in agricultural and food systems that we seek. Our premise is that while many components of such intentional evolution are commonplace elements of innovation and scaling efforts (e.g., facilitation of learning among members of a multi-sector collective action), it is very rare to manage a change initiative so that all necessary components of a cultural evolution process will function robustly. Therefore, we are trying to manage our project in that way and to rigorously document the outcomes. Specifically, we are trying to observe and assess relevant processes, such as identification of an explicit systemic goal for the regenerative agri-food systems we are constructing, differential provision of resources to more successful prototypes of such systems, development of new prototypes by intentional recombination of elements of such systems, and propagation and dissemination of more successful prototypes. We are also assessing the function of this intentional process of cultural evolution through the eyes of participants. How does the process, as a strategy for accelerating transformative change, seem to them? How does it compare to business-as-usual alternatives? We have been able to amass funding to support this project and inquiry in a reasonably substantial way. The cast of characters is a complex and novel institution called the “Forever Green Partnership”. We are building this institution as an intentionally constructed multi-level prosocial polycentric cooperative structure. Is that enough jargon for you, by the way?
By prosocial, we mean that the partnership is undergirded by the systematic application of Ostrom’s core design principles for effective cooperative groups3. By polycentric, we mean that the partnership brings together multiple governing/decision-making centers, which are partially autonomous, but also interdependent, and which function on a range of scales. The partnership is functionally organized around three interactive levels of activity. There is an intermediating group, which we term the “Learning and Experimentation Network” (LEN). The LEN is integrated functionally with 1) a cross-sector Forever Green Steering Council that defines economic, environmental, and social sustainability criteria by which prototype regenerative systems are judged, and which provides supporting resources to prototype systems that best meet these criteria; 2) a set of place-based regenerative-agriculture prototype projects, spanning multiple locations and multiple crops. Thus, the LEN is a pivotal nexus, connecting levels in the Partnership, and mediating key processes of variation, selection, and transmission in an intentional process of cultural evolution. The Steering Council is composed of thought and action leaders from a wide range of organizations, firms, and governing bodies, spanning public, private, and NGO sectors. The LEN is composed of individuals who are organizing regenerative-agriculture prototype pilot efforts, and otherwise working to advance new crops and new agroecosystem and agricultural landscape designs needed to enable transformative change in agricultural and food systems. The place-based pilot projects engage a wide variety of place-based actors, and also actors working at scales beyond the particular localities of the pilots, such as NGOs working to develop national markets for ecosystem services. Therefore, we have the potential to enlist a very wide range of sectors, actors, and places in this project of intentional cultural evolution and are working actively to do so.
Of course, Prosocial World stands as a highly unique thought/action network and institution around the vital challenge of enhancing constructive collective action across sectors and scales. Prosocial World is therefore an essential partner in this work, and in particular, provides vital coaching around the facilitation of processes of intentional cultural evolution, and in the evaluation of the Forever Green Partnership as a vehicle for intentional cultural evolution.
DSW: It should be obvious from our conversation that regenerative agriculture is hugely multifaceted, going beyond Kernza commercialization and even continuous living crop agriculture. In any particular locality or context, some facets will be more salient than others and also more evolvable than others, based on the presence and absence of constraining factors. How can stewarding the cultural evolution of whole systems take these contextual factors into account, while also focusing on a specific facet, such as Kernza commercialization?
NRJ: I think the key thing is to manage a duality – every element of our system for intentional cultural evolution (i.e., the Forever Green Partnership, as described above) has some degree of self-interest in playing their role in the system. For example, the Steering Council is providing resources to (i.e., selecting) certain regenerative agriculture prototypes because the interests of particular Steering Council members are advanced by those prototypes. And also, a large collective interest in accelerating transformation via intentional cultural evolution is also advanced when Partnership members at all levels play their various roles. Partnership members are variously interested in and conscious of this duality, but we are attempting to engage in dialogue about the duality at every opportunity. Thus, members have a self-interest in dealing with the contextual factors that you mention, while also having an interest in the function of the large whole. Or at least that is our working hypothesis!
DSW: Finally, there is tremendous interest in regenerative agriculture—and more generally regenerative culture—around the world. How can your initiative be made maximally relevant to their initiatives?
NRJ: The polycentric structure of the Forever Green Partnership is designed to attract the interest and participation of actors from many different sectors, on grounds of enhancing their power and agency by enlisting in a common project that can allow these actors to pursue their own particular interests by investing in a common cooperative structure that creates a collective agency to advance regenerative systems, including the cultural elements that you point to. Or at least, again, that is our working hypothesis!
DSW: I’m delighted to have had this conversation with you and to make it widely available, which takes a step toward connecting your initiative to worldwide interest in regenerative (agri)culture. I look forward to reporting on our progress at regular intervals.
NRJ: For my part, I’m deeply grateful for our partnership, David, and for the opportunity to tap into—and contribute to—the resources and the thought/action network of Prosocial World!
 Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
 Wilson, D. S. (2016). Two meanings of complex adaptive systems. In Complexity and Evolution: A New Synthesis for Economics. MIT Press.
 For more on Elinor Ostrom and her Core Design Principles, go here: https://evonomics.com/tragedy-of-the-commons-elinor-ostrom/