Of perennials, cereals and civilisations

This post continues with my exploration of Tim Crews and Lee DeHaan’s (C&D’s)1 counter-critique of my article ‘The strong perennial vision’2. One of C&D’s characterisations of my argument is that “Strong criticisms of annual agriculture are unfounded, both socially and ecologically” and that “the real challenge facing humanity is the social problem of how to adapt something like the European model [of agriculture] to other parts of the world”. That’s what I’m going to look at here, before wrapping things up next time with my final post on this issue.

Actually, this one is the easiest of C&D’s various characterisations of my argument for me to address because it’s not what I say in my paper and it’s not what I think. In fact, I think the criticism can be turned around – as I hope to show below it seems to me to be C&D’s project rather than my own which is more intent on adapting the European model of agriculture to other parts of the world.

Anyway, in my paper I cite approvingly Wendell Berry’s comment that we have not yet succeeded in developing sustainable, land-based, locally-adapted economies through the past history of cultivating (primarily annual) staple crops3. C&D cite various other interesting studies that further underline this point. I’m with them on this.

Nevertheless, I do think that there are some places where annual agriculture is relatively less damaging, and C&D confirm that Northwest Europe (where I live) is one of them. Given the profound transformations required if we’re to move to a sustainable agricultural economy worldwide, I’d argue that practising thoughtful annual agriculture in places where it’s ecologically feasible, and working towards methods that minimise its negative impacts are worthwhile things to be getting on with, at least for the time being. Sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good. Permaculture emphasises local, specific solutions, so it beats me why so many permaculturists seem to think that something which may be a good idea in Kansas is necessarily a good idea in Kent.

But I’d further argue that even replacing annual grain agricultures with perennial grain agricultures may not be enough in the end. Historian Geoff Cunfer has suggested that the Dust Bowl in the US prairie states of the 1930s was a natural calamity caused by drought and wind that afflicted areas under native perennial groundcover as well as under annual cereal cultivation4. If he’s right, then perhaps this points to the conclusion that the prairies are an inherently fragile environment for human ecology which will be prone to periodic disturbance regardless of whether those farming them grow annual or perennial crops.

Prior to European colonisation the prairies were sparsely populated by horticultural peoples in the wet and wooded valleys, and then later with the availability of horses by the bison-hunting plains cultures. With the arrival of farmers at the expanding frontier of European colonisation the bison were slaughtered, the Indians mostly killed or exiled, and the prairies ultimately turned to a productive but ecologically precarious export-oriented annual grain agriculture which – along with the agricultures of other semi-arid continental grassland regions of the world – created a global grain market highly undermining of many more localised agricultures worldwide, and supportive of anti-peasant urbanisation. There’s a statistically significant correlation at the country level between (prairie/steppe) grain import dependence and urbanisation. But it may turn out that however people farm them, the agricultural days of the prairies are numbered, especially with factors like the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer to consider. That may be no bad thing in the long run.

Cunfer argues that humans are not the masters of the ecologies into which they’re inserted, but are forced to react to circumstances beyond their control, particularly the vagaries of climate. I think he’s too sanguine about the human ability to adapt adequately to such circumstances, but his Leopoldian point about our lack of mastery of the ecosystems we inhabit seems right. At least it strikes a more convincing tone to me than the Land Institute’s programme of genetic manipulation of perennial plants, apparently unconstrained by any extant prairie ecologies, with the putative aim of replicating annual grain yields.

This aim seems implicitly supportive of the USA’s existing grain export agriculture (the US is responsible for around 20% of global wheat exports and 40% of global maize exports, most of which are grown in and around the prairie states). I would argue that these exports are destructive of more sustainable and locally-adapted agricultures elsewhere in the world – a thesis I pursue at greater length in an article I hope will soon be published in The Land Magazine5. Why should anyone concerned with sustainable agriculture be aspiring to shore up the long-term future of such an agriculture by aiming to match its surpluses? Here, I think there are some tensions in the Land Institute’s project between the writings of its founder Wes Jackson on a sustainable, locally-appropriate agriculture – on becoming ‘native to one’s place’ to use one of Jackson’s essay titles6 – and C&D’s apparent conviction that it’s possible and desirable to develop a perennial grain agriculture to rival the existing annual one.

For their part, C&D don’t seem to hold any type of annual cultivation in high regard. At the plot level, they cite evidence for the superiority of their perennial kernza grain crop in preventing nitrate leaching over conventional or organic annual wheat. At the collective level, they cite evidence for the soil-destroying activities of various ancient civilisations in Europe, Meso-America, Southwest Asia and East Asia which, they argue, “experienced rather spectacular levels of soil degradation and erosion, in spite of the fact that they were small-scale, diversified, labor intensive, locally adapted farming systems”.

This is all interesting stuff. It sounds a bit reminiscent of Mark Shepard’s jeremiads about the collapse of annual tillage civilizations that I criticised in a recent post, though less extreme. I don’t mean to minimise the genuine issue of soil destruction by annual tillage agriculture. Perhaps I should have emphasised this more strongly in my paper. Perhaps C&D would now reject the view espoused in an earlier Land Institute paper co-authored by DeHaan that “In sparsely distributed garden-sized patches, annual grains would have limited negative impact”7. But I’m not sure they should. At the plot or farm level, nitrate leaching is obviously best avoided, but if one were to take a permaculture (whole systems) approach, perhaps it could also be addressed by methods such as on-farm water management, contour cropping, mixed cropping, silvo-arable designs and so on. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem obvious to me that breeding perennial grain crops is the only or necessarily the most promising solution to the problem.

On the matter of the soil degradation wreaked by past civilisations, this is something I will address more fully in the future, but I would argue that these civilisations were not sustained by what anyone really ought to call ‘small-scale, diversified and locally adapted farming systems’. They may have been small-scale by today’s standards, but these civilisations were surely the pioneers of the large-scale, export-oriented annual cereal monocropping that underlies many of our contemporary agricultural troubles. And inasmuch as these civilisations were dependent upon small-scale peasant cultivators, the rents in grain they extracted to fund their opulence typically forced peasant cultivators into unsustainable and overdriven agricultural practices. These practices are not intrinsic to small-scale annual cultivation as such.

Philip Grime describes humans as intermediate SC strategists (see here for an explanation of Grime’s work and its relevance to my analysis). In my paper I briefly explore the implications of his framework for human history (albeit that here I confess I am using his framework in a very general sense): from the typical S or SC strategies of hunter-gatherers and swidden farmers, to the C strategy of commercial annual arable farming and onwards, within the constraints of our primate biology, to the R strategy of the great agricultural civilisations, including our own, which produce vast multitudes of impoverished people who struggle to get enough to eat and are treated as essentially expendable by political elites. It hardly seems feasible nowadays to return to S strategy hunting and gathering, but I think there may be scope for retreat towards SC local horticultural strategies. Zohary et al suggest that this is what has happened in the past8. I think it’s worth considering again. To do so would require a primary focus on social reform of societies, not genetic reform of plants.

In summary, I most certainly don’t think that people should apply European-style farming approaches everywhere. Nor do I think they should apply American prairie-style farming approaches everywhere, as all too many permaculturists seem poised to do through their baffling enthusiasm for perennial grains. Instead, I think people should be able to develop whatever agricultural solutions seem promising long-term bets in their locales (and in this respect, the less grains that get traded around the world from the semi-arid continental grasslands to undermine local agricultural adaptations, the better for everyone).

Generally, a good clue to sound long-term agricultural solutions can be found in the mixed farming systems which preceded the recent rise of export-oriented mechanised farming. On that basis, I think Western European agriculture might feasibly include annual grains, though probably not in the fashion of the increasingly prairie-like landscape of large-scale annual arable farming in contemporary Europe. Perhaps we’d do well to move away from grains altogether as much as possible and towards more vegetables (more horticulture) on nutritional as well as environmental grounds. For Kansas, well, I don’t know – long term, I think maybe you guys are screwed, and not even perennial grains will save your ass. Long term, I think farming of any kind may prove to be a failed experiment to push human numbers beyond feasible carrying capacity across large parts of the globe.

But if I were living in Kansas today and thinking about these things, I’d probably go with my own local history of mixed agriculture, offer a prayer to slaughtered Indians and bison, and be thinking buffalo commons and horticulture down in the wet river valleys. And yes, why not some kernza? I doubt it’ll yield as much as wheat or corn, but that’s a blessing in disguise if it helps put a stop to global grain export agriculture. Consider the following calculations I’ve undertaken with the help of a nearby envelope and that unimpeachable oracle, Wikipedia:

The population of Kansas is 2.9 million, which equates to an annual calorific requirement of something like 2.65 million million calories. There are 46 million acres of farmland in Kansas. Suppose 70% were turned over to native perennial forage for bison, 20% to intermediate wheatgrass to produce grains for human consumption, and 10% for vegetables and other crops for micronutrients and other needs producing, for the sake of argument, no useful food energy. I figure on producing 10kg of bison meat per acre annually, and about 250,000 nutritional calories per acre of intermediate wheatgrass (far less than current yields of annual wheat). By my calculations, together the meat and the wheatgrass (mostly the wheatgrass) would more than meet Kansans’ calorific requirements. Job done already.

I imagine that the residents of, say, New York City might have something to say about this new departure in Kansan agriculture, but I’m sure it would do wonders for concentrating their minds on what’s really important in life, as well as providing a welcome shot in the arm for city lot agriculture. Alternatively, if all US farmland was given over to a wheatgrass ‘domestic prairie’ my estimate is that it could provide enough gruel to satisfy around 90% of its citizens’ calorific needs. OK, so the US would then have to become a net food importer for a change, but I’m sure that would do wonders for concentrating…etc etc. Job almost done already. As a perceptive Kansan farmer of the 19th century who I have already quoted on this blog would put it, “Let us not spend nature’s accumulated fortune on riotous farming”. Perhaps that goes for riotous perennial grain farming too.

I admit that a slightly more sophisticated analysis of global food futures is required than the one I’ve provided in the preceding paragraph. But I stand by my basic contention: more than genetic reform of our crop systems what humanity really needs is social reform of our food systems, and our social systems. But then I’m a social scientist. I guess I have my own biases.


1. Crews, T. and DeHaan, L. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a response’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.

2. Smaje, C. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.

3. Berry, W. 2002 The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind. In A. Kimbrell  (ed.) The Fatal Harvest Reader. Island Press.

4. Cunfer, G. 2004. On The Great Plains. Texas A&M University Press.

5. Smaje, C. ‘The dearth of grass: colonialism, cereals and civilisations’ Unpublished MS.

6. In Jackson, W. 2011. Nature As Measure, Counterpoint.

7. DeHaan, L. et al. 2007. Perennial grains. In S. Scherr  and J. McNeely (eds.). Farming With Nature: The Science And Practice Of Eco-Agriculture. Island Press.

8. Zohary, D., Hopf, M., and Weiss, E. 2012. Domestication of Plants in the Old World. Oxford University Press.

5 thoughts on “Of perennials, cereals and civilisations

  1. “Prior to European colonisation the prairies were sparsely populated by horticultural peoples in the wet and wooded valleys, and then later with the availability of horses by the bison-hunting plains cultures.”
    Doesn’t Charles C. Mann’s _1491_ (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39020.1491) present evidence that Pre-Euro-contact Native American populations were much higher than commonly estimated? I think I remember a horse-mounted people with legends of agricultural life from before horse introduction. The horse, of course, is post-contact in terms of euro-diseases.
    I quibble, but am really enjoying and respectful of these posts.

    • Thanks Brian. I haven’t read Mann’s book. I’m aware of arguments that pre-Columbian American populations in general were higher and more environmentally interventionist than was previously thought, though I don’t know how true that would be specifically of the prairies. The idea of horse-mounted pre-Columbian agrarian people in the prairies is intriguing – is there archaeological evidence for it?

      • Because the horse was introduced by Europeans, there were no strictly pre-Columbian horse riding tribes, but I believe that those who later adopted horses had earlier been agriculturalist. I thought I’d heard that the horse spread faster and earlier than European humans through what is now the Southwest US states, but I am not sure.

  2. Great blog posts! This is really interesting stuff, the csr analysis applied to human society is really interesting and I think it’s spot on to emphasise the social. I’d say that’s the main thing that is stopping more sustainable agriculture/society today – basically private property and the creation of poverty through the government/elite’s restriction of access to resources required for life

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