Monday, January 27, 2014


From time to time a few visionaries appear on the horizon propounding new ways of meeting the challenges facing humanity, especially in the food front. There appears to be a sharp divide between those who assert about impending food crisis due uncontrolled population expansion and others maintaining that what food is produced now or in future is adequate to feed future population provided there is economic equity. The doomsayers base their prediction on the inability of land to produce beyond what is achieved to day and the rapid degradation of soil health from intensive industrial style agricultural production. One of the alternate options being touted is to slowly switch over from cultivation of annuals like wheat, rice etc which form about 70% of world food supply to day to perennials like Kernza grains. Perennials definitely have advantages but whether they can be cultivated to the extent needed is a big question as research is still on their viability credentials. Here is a report that throws some light on the issue. 

"Jackson has a biblical way of speaking: "The plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword," he says. "But soil is more important than oil, and just as nonrenewable." Soil loss is one of the biggest hidden costs of industrial agriculture — and it's created at literally a glacial pace, maybe a quarter-inch per century. The increasingly popular no-till style of agriculture reduces soil loss but increases the need for herbicides. It's a short-term solution, requiring that we poison the soil to save it. Annual monoculture like that practiced in the Midwestern Corn Belt is one culprit. It produces the vast majority of our food, and much of that food — perhaps 70 percent of our calories — is from grasses, which produce edible seeds, or cereals. For 10,000 years we've plowed the soil, planted in spring and harvested in fall, one crop at a time. In an essay he published 26 years ago, called "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," Jared Diamond theorized that this was essentially our downfall: by losing our hunter-gatherer roots and becoming dependent on agriculture, we made it possible for the human population to expand but paid the price in the often malnourishing, environmentally damaging system we have today. That's fascinating, and irreversible; barring a catastrophe that drastically reduces the human population, we'll rely on agriculture for the foreseeable future. But if we look to the kind of systems Jackson talks about, we can markedly reduce the damage. "We don't have to slay Goliath with a pebble," he says of industrial agriculture. "We just have to quit using so much fertilizer and so many pesticides to shrink him to manageable proportions." Perennial polysystems are one way forward, because they allow us to produce grains, legumes, oils and other foods with a host of benefits. Gesturing across the road from where we sat, Jackson said to me: "That prairie — a prime example of a self-sustaining system — doesn't have soil erosion, it's not fossil-fuel dependent, you have species and chemical diversity. If you look around you'll see that essentially all of nature's ecosystems are perennial polycultures; that's nature's instruction book." In perennial polycultures, the plants may fertilize one another, physically support one another, ward off pests and diseases together, resist drought and flood, and survive even when one member suffers."

If funding is the constraint in developing perennial food raising systems fast, global agencies like the FAO must throw their weight behind the pioneering work of some scientists in elucidating the technical and commercial feasibility of the alternate system. There are lot of uncertainties like seed availability and their sustaining ability, yield issues, nutritional uncertainties, disease logistics etc which are to be sorted out and probably it may take about a few decades of sustained collective work to get all the answers needed to take appropriate future decisions regarding changes in present agricultural practices. To say that organic food production is a sustainable alternative is just over simplifying the issue. If whole world is to go for organic food system, is it feasible or logistical? It is alright that a small percentage of food production comes from organic food sector but it may be next to impossible to transplant this system to millions of farms used to traditional agriculture. Besides large grain producers with vast tract of land deploy highly technological mass production system which may not be amenable to organic style of cultivation. Probably perennials offer a better promise for to morrow!   


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