Solutions for Self-Reliance

Maker Monday: Perennial Grains

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Here’s a good example of why science and technology is important for resilience.

Most of the grains and vegetables we currently grow are annuals.  That means we plant them, grow them, and harvest them in a single years.  This approach requires:

  • Lots of energy.  From machinery to fertilizers.
  • Lots of water and additives.  Dead soil and erosion. Annuals have shallow root systems.
  • Reliance on industrial scale, which means: government subsidies, corporate intellectual property, and commodity markets.
This makes farms that use this approach vulnerable to energy price spikes, drought, weed species (insects, disease, etc.), government corruption, corporate monopolies, and financial manipulation.

With all of these vulnerabilities, how did we end up with this a focus on annuals?  Socio-technological path dependency.  That’s a fancy way of saying that the decisions made a long time ago by ancient farmers — who likely selected this approach due how well it worked with flood plain and slash and burn agriculture — locked us into this approach.

So, while it is hard to change due to this path dependency, we might be able to use a bit of technology to offer us a bit more freedom of action.  How?

Perennials

One of the ways to mitigate the vulnerabilities we suffer due to a reliance on annuals for the production of staple crops is to use perennial grains.  Remember, a perennial is a plant that yields a harvest year after year from the same root system.  Here’s a picture of the root system for perennial wheat in comparison to annual wheat.

Perennials provide the following benefits (as compared to annuals):

  • Reduced energy use.  Less work and fertilizer required.
  • Less water (1/5), fewer additives, rich soil, less herbicide, and low erosion.  Perennials have deep root systems.
  • Works well in smaller scale farms in a larger variety of climates.  It also yields stubble that animals can feast on.

While definitely not a silver bullet (no technology ever is), it’s a good step towards more food resilience at the local level. So, why aren’t we switching to perennial grains for greater resilience at the local level?  Perennial grains that are productive enough to use for food production don’t exist yet.

Fortunately, they are being developed right now across the world.   It will move forward faster if more people are involved, and these projects are open sourced.  A true maker project.

Your thinking about farm ecosystem designs that incorporate perennial wheat analyst,

John Robb

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