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Wheat, forever?

(article, Kim Carlson)

Here’s an entwined pair of modern food-related problems: First, high-output annual monocrops — such as wheat — take nutrients from the soil but don’t restore them. Farmers then supplement the soil with fossil-fuel-based fertilizers. Some of the fertilizer, in turn, is rinsed away, sending nitrogen into streams and rivers. The runoff occurs because the soil, which lies bare for much of the winter, has little in the way of naturally occurring erosion control.

Second, hundreds of miles away from the Midwest's vast monocrops, the nitrogen runoff is at least partly to blame for the giant algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River. When the algae die and sink to the ocean floor, the bacteria that help decompose them utilize all the oxygen in the water, making it impossible for other aquatic life to live. This phenomenon, called hypoxia, is the reason for the Gulf’s massive “dead zone.” 

Paul Johnson, author of the new book Fish Forever: A Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood, calls this type of nutrient-overload one of the biggest threats to American fisheries today.

[%image feed-image float=left width=150 caption="The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico."]

What are the best ways for fertile farms and not-too-fertile fisheries to co-exist? One scenario is that farmers could plant perennial wheat that needs much less fertilization — if there were such a thing. And that’s exactly what Steven Johnson describes in the July issue of Gourmet. (The article itself is not available online; instead, Gourmet's website offers an interview with the author.)

Johnson's article introduces us to a Washington farmer and a couple of researchers at Washington State University and at the Land Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research center in Salina, Kansas, who are trying to hybridize a perennial wheat. Though such a plant might not have as high an output as annual wheat, its roots would remain in place all year round. Plants that don't die off every year have two major benefits: They stabilize the soil, preventing soil runoff, and they recycle nutrients back into the soil, reducing the need for artificial fertilizer. 

Perennial wheat might be a plant whose time has come. In the meantime, the Shepherd's Grain alliance of farmers is producing — on a small scale — wheat grown in a method called "direct seeding." Direct seeding is a no-till agricultural practice in which the previous year's crop is left in the fields and the new seed and fertilizer is sown beneath it. As with growing a perennial crop, the direct-seeding system also prevents erosion and preserves soil health.

But as anyone who's familiar with Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma knows, corn is a problem too. As Tom Philpott, of the online magazine Grist, observed a few weeks ago: 

bq. U.S. farmers planted 92.9 million acres of corn this spring, a 15 percent-plus jump from last year. If you lumped all that land together — not too hard to imagine, given that corn ag is highly concentrated in the Midwest — you'd have a monocropped land mass nearly equal in size to the state of California.

He added:

bq. Researchers projected \[PDF\] Monday that the Gulf of Mexico's Dead Zone, like this year's corn harvest, will likely be the largest ever recorded.

Turns out, the Gulf’s dead zone is not the biggest ever recorded, according to more recent information. Nevertheless, what can be done to minimize corn’s impact on the Gulf? Development of perennial corn wasn't mentioned in Johnson's article, but there may be fresh approaches. Philpott, once again, sums up the corn situation succinctly:

bq. We can't blame \[corn\] for . . . our damaged farmland, or our troubled gulf waters. Our problem doesn't stem from corn, but rather the abusive way we grow it, process it, and put it into nearly everything on our supermarket shelves. 

As Stephen Jones, of WSU, says in Johnson’s Gourmet_ article: “For the past hundred years, yield has been everything.” But as Johnson points out, “Today’s more environmentally minded farmers have come to recognize that focusing exclusively on yield is shortsighted.”

Also on Culinate: An article about farming hydroponically.

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