Splendour in the grass: new approaches to cereal production

It would be smarter to use perennial native grasses for cereal grains instead of relying on a handful of farming-intensive annual crops. Shown here is Curly Mitchell grass (Astrebla lappacea), common in northern Australia. Ian Chivers

Any investment manager will tell an investor to spread risks, to have a diverse portfolio, to engage with many sectors of the local economy, to invest in other parts of the globe, to hedge your bets, a mix of shares, real estate and cash – we have all heard this advice. And for the most part we agree with it and do our best to abide by it. Yet we do not take the same approach to our own sustenance. Unlike the savvy investor, humans have an unparalleled reliance upon just a few forms of cereal grains. This is of concern given that grains provide the bulk of nutrition to almost all of the world’s billions of people.

Seeing the limits of the current system

Before exploring where new value might lie, it is important to understand where the threat to value lies in the current system. Now in most parts of the world we mostly rely on only eight or so species of plants for grains. Given their pervasive nature they are easy to name quickly: wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, oats, barley, rye, and millet. There are a few others that are consumed in smaller quantities, but overall we have a very heavy reliance on this small number of species. Our investment adviser would be telling us that this is too narrow a portfolio and that we should be broadening it to spread risks.

The other notable fact about this short list is that most, if not all, are annual plants. These plants do not persist for more than one season, for the most part remove rather than add carbon to the soil and, as they die each year, they leave the soils free of living green matter. This lack of living matter means that they are unable to absorb rainfall if it falls at that time.

Altogether there are too many eggs in the one basket of annual cereals as the principal source of foods for the world’s billions. These plants require significant investment in terms of time and money. It starts with annual resowing, with all the risks of failure and high costs involved. Repeated cultivation has been shown to remove soil organic matter and so reduce the ability of the soil to host beneficial microflora, to absorb water, to be soft underfoot (remember soft soils? They are a thing of the past in much of Australia), to retain nutrients and to smell and feel good. Anyone digging up soil on dedicated cereal cropping farms in most parts of Australia will, apart from deciding that they need a crow bar to get into the soil, notice the absence of worms and that lack of strong earthy smell. Surely this is not a system that offers the long term benefits that come from healthy soil.

Production of these crops not only strips the soil of essential nutrients that must be replaced or else production will fall, but it also requires the use of selective herbicides to remove weeds. Many of those same weeds are now developing resistance to those chemicals. This implies a need to either use higher doses of the same chemical or change to another chemical and start all over again. In short, total reliance upon annual crops is a one-way street to oblivion. It is a system that can produce grain, but does so at the expense of the soil and of the environment.

Business as usual may not be the best way: wheat crop in Dalby, Queensland. Flickr/RaeAllen

Risky business

Significant risks are found at many stages throughout the growth of the crop. At sowing time inadequate rainfall can reduce stand density and may indeed dictate a repeat sowing. During the growth stage again inadequate rainfall might not allow sufficient plant growth to stimulate reproductive stem formation. Finally at harvest time too much rainfall, ironically, can ruin the crop.

It is also a system reliant upon petroleum for fuel to sow, harvest and manage, for fertilizers to promote growth, for herbicides to control weeds and for insecticides to reduce pests. In a world where crude oil will never be cheap again, and along with that other inputs such as fertilizers, growers of annual crops are continually seeing their costs of production increasing. Perhaps breaking the link between expensive oil and grain production should be at the forefront of 21st century practice?

Seeing new options through history’s lens

What we need to do is to look around at other systems and see if they can be used. In Australia we have stunning examples of very long-term grain-food production that had no degrading impact on the environment, that did not require expensive fertilizers or pesticides, and grew without the need for irrigation water to be diverted from river systems. These long term cereal production systems were a feature of Aboriginal-Australian farming systems for thousands of years.

Sorghum leiocladum: a long lived perennial sorghum relative found in the eastern half of Australia, in all states except Tasmania. Ian Chivers

It is not well known that Australian Aborigines used our perennial grasses as grain sources each year for food, usually in the form of a damper, and had well-established methods of production. The region where this was best known was called the Panara by early European anthropologists and extended in a large swathe from the Flinders Range through western New South Wales, north through central and western Queensland, straight through the Northern Territory into the Kimberley and then south into the northern wheat production areas of Western Australia. In the shape of a donut with a bite removed covering the Great Australian Bight, this area covered more than one quarter of the total landmass of Australia. In this huge area Aboriginal Australians kept themselves fed with grains from our perennial grasses and supplemented that basic diet with other bush foods.

The existence of this managed grain production system was novel to the early European explorers, like Sir Thomas Mitchell, who wrote: “In the neighbourhood of our camp the grass had been pulled to a very great extent, and piled in hay-ricks … extending for miles … (that) had evidently been thus laid up by the natives, but for what purpose we could not imagine”. It took later botanists and anthropologists to determine that the Aborigines had been using these ricks (windrows) to ripen the seed, which was then collected, cleaned, stored, and used to make a bread-like damper.

So why do we not look to use the same sort of system for grain production now? Maybe Australian cereal breeders should become more aware of Australian native grasses and the existence of the Panara. Sure, we are not in a shifting hunter-gatherer society any longer, and I am not suggesting we revert to those practices. Rather, I am suggesting that we look at the species that were used by those clever societies and see if they can be adapted to form part of a new production methodology that is more sympathetic with the realities of Australia, and indeed the globe, in the 21st Century.

The Flinders Ranges in South Australia, where Aborigines used native grasses for cereal grain. Flickr/kabl1992

A new production system using perennial grasses

We need to be looking at perennial grasses for our new grain types, not annuals. As it happens, Australia has many suitable grain-production candidates amongst its perennial grasses. It is not the purpose of this essay to discuss the merits of each of the candidates, rather to encourage people to think more broadly about their choice of species and then to look closely at some of the Australian native options and opportunities.

But what would a new production system look like? There are many different models and they will vary from region to region, but I suspect they will have several consistent features. They will be perennial, they will match the rainfall zone and be permanent and persistent pastures in each zone, they will be palatable to domestic stock, they will be harvestable for grain using conventional equipment, and they will have grains that are easy to thresh.

Can you imagine a permanent pasture that also produces a grain crop in those years when the rainfall amount and timing permits? It would also be the pasture that is able to survive the drought that will inevitably occur without the need to resow once the drought breaks. In another area with another grass pasture and crop, it will be the permanent pasture that grows vigorously under the trees, that produces a grain crop at the end of the wet season but still does not compete for moisture during the dry months. It would be a new world of true dual-purpose crops – where farmers have the options to simply graze a paddock or alternatively to graze it for a shorter period and then to let it run up a grain crop. This is a perennial grain-cropping system as it was used in the long-time past but which is still there for the discovery if we are wise enough to look.

Time to think, time to act

Channel millet (Echinochloa turneriana): a native of the Channel country across parts of Queensland, NSW, and SA. Ian Chivers

This is a low-risk, low-cost system that is sadly not known to most plant breeders. What is horribly clear however is that continuing to invest in breeding of the existing cereal species looking for a variety that might be slightly more drought tolerant means continuing to favour a system that degrades our soils and environment. Is it not time to rethink? Why not be active and systematically collect potential crop plants from around Australia? Why not go to marginal environments and find those native grasses that grow there already to see if they can be adopted for use in modern farming? Why not broaden the thinking of the plant breeders and give them opportunities to be creative in their species selection? It would be to the good of us all.

Comments welcome below.