Sustainably Yours: Our Love-Hate Relationship With Grains

No, I’m not going to get on the gluten soapbox. Last article, we touched upon Nipa (Distichlis palmeri), a Mexican native grain that is poised to shape the next Neolithic Revolution (Neo-Neolithic?).

Let’s delve into grains in general. Cereal grains are not the sexiest of topics, but when it comes to humans ‘terraforming’ there is nothing quite like grain. Just wheat alone claims 240 million hectares of land that would otherwise be habitat. Hundreds of millions of hectares around the globe are dedicated to wheat, corn and rice. “Amber waves of grain” sounds sentimental but it also tends to mean soil erosion: 1/3 of topsoil around the world is washing away largely due to agricultural-grain activity. We’re talking 24 billion tons A YEAR. Soil erosion, in turn, returns the favor and negatively affects grain harvests. It’s been estimated that soil erosion has reduced Africa’s grain harvests by 8 million tons, creating a vicious cycle being mirrored around the world: grains cause erosion, then erosion reduces grain yields.

Grain also means that millions of gallons of irrigation water around the world are sucking aquifers dry for grain production. It means millions of gallons of pesticides and herbicides are being doused all over the earth’s crust for grains. It means millions of hectares of habitat are being violently withheld as habitat. And it also means staggering amounts of CO2, normally locked up in soil, is released into the atmosphere due to the practices of tilling. I find it ironic that something that birthed civilization can also lead to its decline.

And grains are not merely being grown for human and animal food. Corn is the prime example of commodified grain. It’s in a big chunk of everything. It’s in batteries. It’s in shampoos. It’s the corn syrup feedstock that cultivated molds turn into citric acid (also in everything!). Gluten, the wheat derived protein, is even in binders that hold gypsum panels together, meaning that severe Celiac sufferers shouldn’t be around drywall when it is being cut or installed.

So, that’s the bad news about grains. But it’s complicated. We humans have a very mixed relationship with grains. On the one hand, grains catapulted civilization as we know it. We might not have pyramids were it not for grains. They give us pizza and biodiesel. They give us easily storable food supplies. They are so delicious!

A few pioneers are really tackling next generation grains. As mentioned in the previous article, The Land Institute is probably the most famous outfit working solutions to many of the production drawbacks of grains. Permaculture is a movement very focused on perennial systems, including grain systems (see perennialsolutions.org).

But at the end of the day, we may end up compromising yields for permanent organic plantings. The massive yields associated with the Green Revolution (Chemical Revolution) are a result of pumping plants full of salts. The plants then overcompensate with water (they become very thirsty!) because they don’t want to get burned from excess sodium. That is why artificially fertilized vegetables and grains look huge (it’s mostly water) yet lack nutrient density.

I’m gonna try not to write too many articles ending on a hands-in-the-air-because-we-have-no-idea-what-the-solution-is note. Grains are complicated and need a lot of collective human brain power to figure out the best ways forward. But, pinkie promise, next article will be a little peppier: perennial salad crops for the tropics. I owe ya.

Emily Majewski
Emily Majewski is Co-Founder of PHYTOSTONE, a small firm based in Nayarit dedicated to creating advanced natural materials for home and garden.