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Perennial Vegetables Are a Solution in the Fight Against Hunger and Climate Change

Marisha Auerbach’s home garden is an edible landscape. Archways of table and wine grapes shade the entry while tree kales, tree collards, and stinging nettles dot the pathway. Auerbach, a permaculture teacher at Oregon State University, and her partner, Zane Ingersoll, estimate roughly 80 percent of their diet comes from this 6,600-square-foot lot in Portland. About 60 percent of the garden is perennial plants, trees, and shrubs—meaning they grow all year long and don’t need to be replanted or reseeded the following year.

Perennial agriculture—including agroforestrysilvopasture, and the development of perennial row crops such as Kernza—has come to prominence in recent years as an important part of the fights against soil erosion and climate change. Not only do perennial plants develop longer, more stabilizing roots than annual crops, but they’ve also been shown to be key to sequestering carbon in the soil.

Now, a new study in the journal PLoS ONE is pointing to vegetables like the ones in Auerbach’s garden as another important addition to the list.

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Superwheat Kernza Could Save Our Soil and Feed Us Well

Author: Larissa Zimberoff 

Kernza’s arrival has been a long time coming. The new grain variety from the Land Institute is derived from an ancient form of intermediate wheatgrass, a perennial that is actually a distant relative of wheat. And there’s a widespread team of researchers hoping their work will pave the way for an entirely new form of food.

In development for well over a decade, Kernza is now being grown in test plots around the world, and a host of scientists, food retailers, bakers, and distillers are collaborating to help bring it to consumers.

Kernza is perennial, meaning it can be grown year-round, with roots that live on in the ground through winter. Corn, wheat, and most of the other grains we eat, on the other hand, are annual crops, which must be replanted anew every year, and require seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides for each planting. But Kernza’s most important difference–and the reason so many people have been waiting for its arrival–is the way it interacts with the soil.

Because its root system is dense, growing down into the earth up to 10 feet, Kernza can respond to shifts in soil and temperature quickly, taking in water, nitrogen, and phosphorous. Annual wheat doesn’t live long enough to develop thick roots, and requires soil tilling before each planting. But Kernza’s roots hold soil in place, preventing erosion. This is especially crucial in the farm belt, where rain washes significant quantities of soil and dissolved nitrogen into waterways, and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. The Environmental Working Group estimates that 10 million acres of Iowa farmland lost dangerous amounts of soil in 2007.

That’s not all. Kernza also “builds soil quality and takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, which may help with mitigating climate change,” says Land Institute scientist Lee DeHaan, the driving force behind Kernza.

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