Eat What You Grow, Grow What You Eat?

Sharon July 6th, 2009

A thought experiment:

Due to a combination of crises - maybe a volcano explosion, the penetration of Ug99 into the main of the world wheat crop, drought in many of the world’s grain growing regions, zombie invasion etc…  the world experiences a catastrophic failure of its staple crops.  All of a sudden grain supplies drop like a stone, and there are none to be had in the market.  No bread, no rice, no soybeans or corn - none of those products are available in the markets.

At first, there is panic.  The government institutes a ban on the feeding of anything but grass and hay to livestock, necessitating a massive butchering of most national stock, which raises cholesterol levels but keeps people from starving initially. 

Then we begin a rapid inventory of what crops survived, and what foods are available to feed the hungry.  For caloric density, there is little that can match grains, but we do what we can.  The national potato crop was poor, but what there is of that provides some familiar food.  But it was a banner year for the American beet-growers, and rather than converting them as is often the case, to sugar, they are sent to market whole to feed the hungry.  Similarly, sweet sorghum survived fairly well, and rather than being pressed into syrup, is sent out to market.  Southerly nations, responding to a worldwide crisis commit some of their taro and cassava crop to feed the hungry.  Many farmers when the rain finally came, planted turnips and buckwheat, and a modest harvest comes out of the midwest.  And of course, US nut growers, aware theirs is the most protein dense crop available commit their harvest (at stunning prices) to the cause.  Meanwhile corps of poor Americans are set to harvesting urban and rural oak trees for acorn meal. We learn that there is enough food to go around and prevent starvation, even if it is unfamiliar.

Now imagine yourself, an ordinary shopper at the market, setting out to make dinner.  Here is a whole cassava root, with leaves attached.  Government propaganda has told you that the root is filling and starchy, but low in protein, but that this can be made up for by processing the leaves to remove the cyanide and then eating those - remember, they are perfectly safe, but you don’t want to get a paralytic neurological disease by inadequate processing.  Here is an enormous pile of beets, ready to be eaten in breakfast bakes, luncheon salads and dinner entrees.  Here is ground chestnut meal, to be mixed with sorghum and made into flatbreads.  Remember, there’s plenty of food - you just have to cook and eat it. 

I do not anticipate this particular scenario happening any time soon, but I do think it is a useful illustration of the degree to which we depend not only on food, but on the familiarity of our food.  In this case, with much muttering and unhappiness, some appetite fatigue and malnutrition, we probably would begin getting comfortable with acorn pancakes and turnip stew with taro dumplings.   This would be extremely difficult however - remember only a tiny percentage of Americans would actually even know what to do with the foods that they do eat all the time - confronted with a bowl of wheat berries or whole corn, or a soybean in its natural state, most Americans (and I suspect most people in much of the developed world) would see not “food” but something else.  Wheat comes in the form of bread, or maybe, for some, flour, corn in the form, at best, of cornmeal or tortillas, and more often in processed foods.  Soybeans are conveniently made into tofu or soyburgers.

But now let’s envision the scenario slightly differently, rather, say, like today.  Nothing happened to the world’s wheat crop, other than an increasingly large number of people who want to eat it.  Nothing happened to the corn or soybean crop that isn’t happening every day - sure, nitrogen is poisoning water ways, chemicals are causing cancer in farm kids, topsoil is washing away and the dead zone in the Gulf is getting bigger, but nothing much happened.  Nothing happened (thank G-d) to the rice crops on which almost half the world subsists. 

And yet, someone noticed that even though nothing in particular happened, most of those foods aregrown destructively - that is, something is happening, something disastrous.  The wheat is being grown often on dry prairie soils that should never be plowed at all.  The corn and soybeans are being grown continuously in the midwest, ripping off topsoil.  The dead zone, the aquifer pumping, the contamination of groundwater, the poisoning of frogs and fish in rice paddies - these things are happening.  And someone said “ok, we need to eat foods that don’t grow like this.  So, what can we grow without destroying the planet?”

 Well let’s say that what they came up with was much the same menu - the tastier white acorns, chestnuts, hazels and pecans to replace oil and protein crops, roots like beets, cassava, taro, sweet potatoes, potatoes and turnips that are easily grown either perennially or in combination with perennial agriculture in vegecultures.   Obscure grains suited to particular conditions - amaranth and old varieties of corn in hot dry climates, buckwheat in short summer climates, quinoa in high places, so that folks in Denver have pretty much only quinoa and maybe some barley, while in Pheonix, amaranth is it and in my neighborhood, you can have all the buckwheat you want - but not much else. 

 What do you think the odds are of Americans, or Europeans voluntarily shifting their diets?  Imagine the new ad campaigns “Now, with more cassava!”  Health food claims could probably do some - remember oat bran?  If you can get Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse to do acorns,  who knows…the sky is the limit?

However, it won’t happen fast.  Food cultures can and do change dramatically - when I was 10, I went out for sushi for the first time with my father - at the time there were two Japanese restaurants in Boston, and not a single person I knew, including my extremely adventurous Dad, had ever eaten it.  I did it rather on a bet, and was accounted a huge radical eating raw fish in 1982.  Now my local supermarket sells sushi, and everyone eats it.  But the transition from “bait” to “universal” took at least 25 years from the first introduction of the concept in the US.  It is hard to imagine now that there were times when literally it was impossible to get basil or broccoli in the US - nobody grew them outside a few ethnic gardeners.  In every case, however, it was a process.

And what happens is generally an addition of food - for example, Americans are eating a lot more tofu than they used to.  Back in the 1970s, when my mother and step-mother were experimenting with healthy foods, there were a lot of recipes for tofu loaves - and probably more was done to bring tofu into the mainstream culture by the death of the tofu loaf than anything else - but the idea was that tofu would substitute for meat.  Well, for some portion of people it did - but meat consumption also rose, until we were actually eating more meat along with our tofu, than ever before.  While jello for jello salad may have peaked back in the 1950s, a surprising number of jello salads grace tables across the country - tables that also may have sliced tomatoes and basil with mozzarella now, or marinated broccoli salad.  That is, we’ve no replaced the jello but added on to it.

Why is all of this so important?  Well, it comes down the question of why I include “eat the food” in my Independence Days project.  It seems like so minor a thing - ”Of course we’re eating the food, we’re growing it, right?” But I think all of us have yet to fully grasp the magnitude of the food question from a eater’s perspective.  Right now, the vast majority of our calories are coming from grain production, mostly not very sustainable grain production.  Those of us most aware of the issue are at least buying our grains direct from sustainable farmers - this is excellent.  A few people are eating mostly what is available in their regions.  All of us are eating more out of our gardens.  But it remains the fact that only 5% of US cropland is growing vegetables, nuts and unusual small grains - the vast majority of our agricultural land is growing either meat, dairy, grains or soybeans. 

And most of even the most committed people I know are (and here I cannot fully except even myself) eating a lot of things that don’t really grow all that sustainably in our regions because we like them, because our families are accustomed to them, because we feel that a meal without bread or rice or tortillas is not a meal.  Because we have picky eaters in our family.  Because we have no idea what to do with a big pile of acorn meal or a cassava root, and no real desire to learn - or if we do want to learn, no quick easy way to overcome the cultural weight of it not being “our” food.  Food is not merely food, it is culture, it is our identity in some ways - we think of ourselves, implicitly, as being part of a community of eaters, and if our community does not eat what we eat, we are dubious.

This is an issue that comes up across the PO/Climate change community spectrum, and one I think all of these communities rarely struggle enough with.  It is an issue for backyard chicken raisers who are rightly proud that they are raising eggs and meat in their yards - and who also are raising them almost entirely on purchased bagged feed.  It is an issue for permaculturists, enthusiastically replacing their yards with forest gardens, who have no idea what they are going to do with groundnuts and jerusalem artichokes, so who mostly do nothing with them.  It is an issue for growers like me, who very much want to grow local staple crops for market - but who simply can’t make a living growing potatoes, beets and turnips, because people don’t eat those things in quantities sufficient, or pay enough for them.  It is an issue for me, because my family loves rice and bread, but does not grow much wheat or any rice.  It is not that we must eat wholly as we intend to eat, but it does matter that we begin the dietary and agricultural shift we inevitably face ahead of time.

Most of our gardens bring in our greens and our flavoring crops, our berries and our other things that make life pleasant.  Most of us are not growing our staple foods.  My family is in some measure - we grow hundreds of pounds of potatoes, sweet potatoes and other root crops each year.  But we still haven’t fully dealt with our grain habit - in some ways we can’t - I consider food storage essential, but I can’t store potatoes or Jerusalem artichokes for as long as beans and grains.

It is possible to grow corn or soybeans, rice or wheat in ways that are sustainable.  But I’m not sure if we’re anywhere even remotely near that transition - one of the things found in both the former Soviet Union and Cuba is this - while small farms adapted very well to low input, sustainable food culture, larger farms simply didn’t, and yields never came back up to prior ones, until lots of fossil fuels were re-input into the system.  That is, there’s some compelling evidence that without a lot of energy, we can still grow grains - but not on large scale.  The traditional limits of, say, Amish farmers were generally no more than 100 acres.  The cultural shift required to imagine breaking up our grain farms into 100 acre increments, with the corresponding reality that some of that acreage must be used to feed animals, is a bit hard to imagine. 

Now it is possible we will simply reallocate our remaining fossil fuels to agriculture - this would be possible in the US, although tougher in countries that don’t have any.  But sooner or later (later probably) the supplies will be inadequate for even that - and remember, as I discussed recently in another post, Cuba lost only 20% of its oil inputs - a number that is much scarier than the 50 or 80% often quoted.  That is, when 20% of its oil disappeared, people began to go hungry, in large part because of the problems of competing priorities.  The 1970s oil shocks that caused a massive recession and energy crisis resulted from only a 5% reduction in US oil availability.  It is conceivable that agriculture will get all the oil - but police protection, education, military use, medical technology, transport, etc… will also be making demands.  We’d have to imagine a scenario in which we all agreed about something.  Good luck with that.

If it is going to be a difficult (not impossible, but difficult on a different scale than adapting our diets) process to adapt grain production as we have it now in the US, then we have to imagine that we may need to shift to other crops that produce more on smaller scales to substitute.  And therein lies the problem.  Root crops produce more calories and nutrition per acre under hand cultivation than many grains do - hand cultivated potatoes outyielded green revolution grains into the early 1970s, and the odds are they will again.  Some roots have the advantage of being perennial as well, and potatoes and sweet potatoes can grow on ground too steep, rocky or poor to grow grains at all, expanding crop land, and without tillage, reducing erosion.  While Americans eat a tolerable number of potatoes, they do so mostly as processed fries and hashbrowns.  Only in the south are sweet potatoes a major source of food.  Turnips, beets, parsnips and perennial roots are a tiny portion of our diets - and none at all for the American mainstream public.

High protein nut crops, including acorns, are probably the densest vegetarian source of calories, proteins and fats available to us.  They are also a tiny portion of our diet.  Animals can be fed on both nut mast and on root crops - mangels and turnips kept animals alive through the winter in Europe, and chestnuts were the “Tree grain” of the East, while acorns were in much of the West, but people do not eat these crops on any scale - we need not “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” once a year, but large scale consumption.

Grains are going to be regionalized - irrigated grain production simply will not be happening in many parts of the country.  Growing rice in California is obviously an act of first-level stupidity, but in the dryer parts of the American prairie, grain production may cease altogether due to climate change.  Southwesterners may be able to get along with dryland corns and amaranths that evolved for the desert, plus mesquite flours and other crops - although the heating and drying of that region may make even that hard.   When fertilizer prices rose, many people stopped planting corn altogether, and were forced to think about other crops - if they rise again, which they certainly will eventually, we will have to think about less demanding sources of food than corn.  

And this is going to require massive retraining and work on people’s palates and food cultures - and it is hugely important work.  There are two ways this can happen - we can find ourselves in crisis, eating what we do know and probably do not like.  The cost of this for ordinary people is grumbling and unhappiness. For children, the medically fragile and the elderly, it is appetite fatigue, which can cause them to stop eating, and suffer malnutrition, illness or occasionally even death.  The price for farmers - and the people who rely on them (ie, all of us) is the danger of an abrupt shift into crops that are unfamiliar, and the possibility of poor harvests when they are most needed.

Or, we can start the work now - we can learn to eat the food.  That means pushing our comfort levels back a good bit, and beginning to replace the grains in our diet with other foods, even if it is hard, even if we think we can’t like them, or we can’t do it.  It means that if we are growing forest gardens full of figs and hazelnuts, they are not merely a snack, but a supplement to our diet, and we eat figs and hazelnuts, jerusalem artichokes and groundnuts.  It means pushing our gardens a little more towards the foods we should be eating - and then actually eating them.  Not that it isn’t valuable to make your own hot sauce - hot sauce matters.  But then comes the process of learning to put it into a salsa served with homegrown beet chips, or on those acorn pancakes.  It is in this homely way that we begin to save the world - with beet chips ;-) .


52 Responses to “Eat What You Grow, Grow What You Eat?”

  1. mike says:

    i planted orange, grapefruit and lemon seeds in used coffee grounds for years and got hundreds of seedlings and some survived the 10 year and produce fruits in my tiny desert yard and i thing agriculture experiements should be required gramma school classes with time allococated to the expansions and productions and needs required for that as a futures hedge and a method of getting something personally in my “greedy” little state from the huge school taxes I pay

  2. sidonny says:

    Eat What You Grow, Grow What You Eat?
    Sharon July 6th, 2009

    A thought experiment:

    Due to a combination of crises – maybe a volcano explosion, the penetration of Ug99 into the main of the world wheat crop, drought in many of the world’s grain growing regions, zombie invasion etc… the world experiences a catastrophic failure of its staple crops. All of a sudden grain supplies drop like a stone, and there are none to be had in the market. No bread, no rice, no soybeans or corn – none of those products are available in the markets.

    At first, there is panic. The government institutes a ban on the feeding of anything but grass and hay to livestock, necessitating a massive butchering of most national stock, which raises cholesterol levels but keeps people from starving initially.

    Then we begin a rapid inventory of what crops survived, and what foods are available to feed the hungry. For caloric density, there is little that can match grains, but we do what we can. The national potato crop was poor, but what there is of that provides

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