We live and learn

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Dave of Darlington

You are never too old to learn, they say. Thank goodness for that! Fortunately we are continually getting new insights and challenges, which sometimes make us realise that what we always believed in is wrong. For example, for many years I was committed to the idea that only annual plants could yield enough to be suitable for use as agricultural crops. Even as recently as 1998 I was writing that, from the point of view of feeding the world’s human population, annual crops were better than perennials.1 Now I must eat my words and own up to having been mistaken. I am now convinced that annual crop production is unsustainable, even when done organically, and that we must look to perennial plants for our nourishment in the years to come.

Of course there is nothing new in this idea. Prophetic individuals like Ken Fearn, founder of Plants for a Future, have been saying this for years. But it was reading about the work of the Land Institute at Salina in the United States that finally made me change my mind. Their research has led them to some very interesting conclusions, which raise questions about the very basis of agriculture.

The mistakes of the past

In a previous article I listed some fundamental mistakes that humans had made way back in history, including such things as the domestication of animals. I should have added to my list the domestication of annual plants. This step, which probably happened somewhere in south-western Asia about 12,000 years ago, has led us down a very long, but ultimately blind, alley, from which we will have difficulty in finding our way out. Of course we cannot blame prehistoric people for this. They only did what seemed easiest to them. Annual plants were generally easier to breed and to propagate and it was widely believed that they put a larger proportion of their energy into producing flowers and fruit, and hence food for humans, than do perennials. That is why annual crops became, and have remained, the basis of the world’s agriculture.

What the ancient peoples could not have realised is that the requirements of growing annual crops – the preparation of the soil, the sowing and the nurturing of the young plants – would take a large and increasing amount of energy, which we eventually would not be able to afford. They were also unaware of the deleterious effect that the growing of annual crops would have on the soil, due to the continual disturbance that it is subjected to.

It is for such reasons that people at the Land Institute and elsewhere have begun to question the wisdom of growing annual crops at all. The trouble is that annual grasses provide a very large part of human food in the form of cereal grains. Worldwide, cereal crops occupy nearly two thirds of all agricultural land. Grains have the advantages that they are nutritious for humans, they are easy to grow and harvest and they give a relatively high yield of food per unit area of land. The question is, could perennial grasses serve these purposes as well as annual ones? The research at the Land Institute has shown that they can. In particular, they have shown that, while wild perennial grasses generally yield less seed than annual ones, it is possible to breed perennial grasses that have a much higher yield, comparable with that of annuals.

Time is running out!

The substitution of perennial for annual grasses as the main agricultural crops would constitute a complete revolution in agriculture. It would entail totally new methods of growing, harvesting and maintaining soil fertility. These new methods would all take a considerable time to test, develop and introduce on a large scale. But we may not have a lot of time. Available supplies of energy and soil are already beginning to run out. So we need to start now. We can all help with this – for example, by supporting the work of the Land Institute,3 Plants for a Future4 and other organisations working in this field. And those of us who grow food, on however small a scale, can begin to gradually replace our annual crops with perennial ones.

Apart from grasses, there are, of course, many other kinds of perennial plants that can provide food for humans. All have the advantage over annuals that they require a much smaller energy input to grow them and involve little or no disturbance of the soil. In fact they tend to conserve the soil through their more extensive root systems. Since energy shortage and soil conservation will soon become crucial issues for human survival, it seems likely that the future will be perennial.

notes

1. In my article “Permaculture for Beginners” in V.O.N.Newsletter no. 3.

2. In an article entitled “Human Error” in issue number 14 of this magazine.

3. The Land Institute, 2440 East Water Well Road, Salina, Kansas, KS 67401, U.S.A. Tel.: +1-785-823-5376; fax: +1-785-823-8728; web-site: www.landinstitute.org

4.  Plants for a Future, The Field, St. Veep, Lostwithiel, Cornwall PL22 0QJ. Tel.: 01208 873554. web-site: www.pfaf.org

Editors note: the Land Institute website says that the roots of perennial wheatgrass can be three times as long as those of annual wheat – up to three metres long in fact! The picture of sorghum is from a publication of the Vegan Self Sufficiency Network way back in the 1980’s

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