Agribusiness feeds billions of people, but . . .

there’s a few problems: we’re using too much water, depleting the topsoil, poisoning the oceans and rivers with too much nitrogen run-off, and filling the atmosphere with carbon. Not to mention the pesticides that also cause problems, including, very possibly, bee colony collapse. Bees, butterflies, frogs . . . . these creatures are mysteriously dying in huge numbers.

What would we do without them?
What would we do without them?

The situation does not bode well for the generations to come.

Many of us can reduce our dependence on agribusiness by growing vegetables in our yards and on top of buildings, using organic methods that avoid most of the problems I just listed. But what about wheat? Rice? How can we grow enough grains for everyone without buying into  large-scale agribusiness?

Wes Jackson, a plant geneticist who lives and works in Kansas, has hit upon one of the answers. This answer grew from the observation that native grasses on the Great Plains grow lushly all by themselves. They hold topsoil in place and do not need irrigation or fertilizer.

He has selected several promising perennial grasses and has devoted himself for over thirty years to cross-breeding them into nutritious food sources for humans. His most advanced success so far is called Kernza , which closely resembles wheat. After several generations the seed is now one third the size of wheat. People who eat pancakes made from it don’t realize they’re eating anything other than delicious pancakes.

waves of Kernza grain--just not amber
waves of Kernza grain–just not amber

However, Kernza is low in gluten, making it unsuitable for bread, although it can be mixed with wheat.

Edible perennial polycultures that don’t need the ground to be tilled, or irrigated, or fertilized may very well be the future of agriculture. Genetic researchers in China are attempting to do the same for rice.

By the way, if you’re confused about the difference between agroecology, permaculture, and other “natural farming” techniques, here’s the article for you. I personally think the similarities between them are strong enough that we can just lump them together, but others disagree.








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