Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Winter Wheat, Spring Wheat, Summer Wheat...Always Wheat

The NYTimes Science section has a story today about attempts to breed a perennial wheat. Agricultural researchers in eastern Washington are currently working on the problem. They see it as a solution to a variety of problems including global warming's effects on food production, erosion, and the high fuel costs of plowing and planting every year. I think it's a great goal and I hope they stick with it despite the funding problems mentioned toward the end of the article.

I have a few bones to pick with the article, though. (Please remember that I did warn in my introduction to my newly overhauled blog that I would occasionally stick in a wonky post. I just couldn't resist this.)

First bone is that there seems to be an underlying assumption that there is nothing else farmers could do to decrease erosion, particularly from wind. That's simply not true. They want to keep the economy of scale they get from having enormous expanses of unimpeded wheat fields. I understand that. That field arrangement, however, comes at a high cost. There is nothing to break or slow the wind, nothing to catch blowing soil before it leaves the farm. Windbreaks of mixed-height trees would make a huge difference. Even strips of unplowed wheat stubble would help. Yes, it would mean more time on tractors and combines because the farmer couldn't just drive for half a mile down the field with no interruptions. Sometimes, for the good of the planet, you just have to make a few sacrifices.

Along similar lines, I really hate that the author says that annual wheat can't compete with annual weeds and therefore needs herbicides. I was, in a past career, an organic market gardener. Most plants that conventional agriculture says need herbicides and pesticides and artificial fertilizers simply don't. Do they need them to achieve ridiculously high yields? Sometimes. Do they need them to produce a crop in most years? No. It irks me that agriculture in the popular press is consistently discussed as if large-scale industrial farming is the only option.

Last bone is the tossed-in comment about the ancient farmers who "chose" wheat:

The problem with annual wheat is that farmers selected it for domestication because of its high grain yield, which means the plant sacrificed other attributes to maximize the amount of seed.

Part of my "thinking about food" involves researching prehistoric agriculture. (What can I say? I'm a food geek. I'm ok with it. You?) It's really hard to justify statements like "farmers selected it for domestication because", especially when you're talking about wheat. Who know why people ten thousand years ago did anything? There are hypotheses, some with more support than others, for why people did some things, but human motivation is a tricky thing. Why is it especially problematic for wheat? Wheat was one of the very first plants domesticated, possibly the first, although it's looking more and more like rye was domesticated earlier. So the people who "domesticated" wheat didn't have some end-goal in mind because they had never seen the end-goal before. They relied on wheat in their diet, quite possibly because of the high grain yields (see, I'm willing to go along with the author's choice of motivation to some extent; I'm not unreasonable). Experimental research in high-density stands of wild wheat have shown that a family could harvest a year's worth of wheat in a relatively short time. There's a lot of debate about just how the genetic changes that define domestication came about. One of the most-favored hypotheses says that simply by harvesting wheat in the way they did -- with sickles, favoring characteristics like simultaneous ripening and holding onto grain tightly -- people selected for the genetic stock of our modern domesticated wheats.

Given my love of all things bready AND all things planet-friendly, I certainly hope they find ways to make wheat more suitable to lower-impact farming. I also hope that Congress wakes up and recognizes that agricultural research subsidies should be going to people who recognize that our agricultural practices are going to have to change with the climate.

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