Climate Change and the Future of Food Growth

By: Gabe Garms

The drought that we're experiencing here in the Pacific Northwest has really been unsettling to put it lightly. Farmers in the foothills of the Northwestern Cascades are reporting that summer crops were approximately 4 weeks early this year. They've even been receiving letters from the USDA Farm Service Agency stating this year has officially been declared a disaster. Even the Washington Department of Ecology called it the worst drought the state has ever seen. To give you an idea, the Olympic National Forest on the Olympic Peninsula (one of the wettest places in North America) caught fire for the first time in history. Outside of our region, the heat index broke a world record in Iran (165 degrees Fahrenheit) and I don't think I really have to go too much into the drought that's currently happening in California. What made me so intent on writing this post is that all of these events are by no means an anomaly and not only will the droughts/heat waves continue, but they'll get worse.

The reason that I feel the droughts will continually worsen is primarily based on two factors. The first being that our carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels continues to increase each year on a global level. This is despite market introductions of alternative energy sources and environmental regulations, which is scary. Secondly, we are deforesting the planet at an almost equally alarming rate as we are creating CO2. One thing most people don't realize about trees is that they're responsible for between 30-50% of our rainfall. Not only that, trees are also one of the best mechanisms for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere (thus reducing temperature). So while emissions are overheating the planet, the disappearing trees are reducing the rainfall when we happen to need water more than ever.

So enough with the pessimism already right? Believe it or not, this article wasn't meant to scare you (maybe a little?), but to help you both come to terms with what is happening (although I presume many of you already have) and prepare you for what's to come.

In Mark Shepard's book, Restoration Agriculture, he states that every human society throughout history which has collapsed, has done so because of it's reliance on annual crops as the staple food source. Today, close to 80% of all food that we consume are annual crops, with the 20% perennial consumption consisting mostly of fruits and nuts. When Mark wrote that, he was mainly referring to the fact that in order to grow annual crops, we have to till the soil, which destroys the soil life and eventually the soil itself. But this time in history, it's not tillage (well it's partially due to tillage) but lack of water which will likely be our downfall.

You see, annual crops have shallow root systems because they're only alive for one year. Because of this short window of time to complete their life cycle, they have to put a good amount of their energy into above ground growth, flowering and eventually going to seed. These shallow root systems are easily dried out by the sun's heat - hence why we have to irrigate so frequently. Another problem is that since annuals are short lived, their immune systems are relatively weak and are more susceptible to disease and pests than other types of plants, such as perennials and biennials.

Perennials are defined as being herbaceous plants, vines, trees or shrubs that live for 3 years or longer (biennials live for 2 years). They're not in as big of rush to grow like annuals and have time to send their roots deep into the soil where they can access water/nutrients in places where the annuals can't. Look at your lawn the next time it doesn't rain for a few weeks. The grass, while it's technically a perennial, is shallow rooted like an annual and dies quickly without water. But the perennials/biennials in the yard like dandelion, chicory and plantain will be doing just fine because they have developed root systems that can access water and strong immune systems to ward off pests and disease.

These are the types of plants that we want to start converting our agricultural systems over to if we're to grow food with little to no water. I'll write a separate article soon about building soil with no till systems and holding water within it, but for the time being, I simply want to get you warm to the idea of perennial/biennial crop agriculture. While we're familiar with many of the perennial tree crops that are fruits and nuts, we are largely unfamiliar with perennial crops with the exception of asparagus, kale and rhubarb. Eric Toensmeier wrote an amazing book called Perennial Vegetables which lists all the perennial vegetables that grow throughout the world. Did you know that there are potatoes that grow in the air and shrubs with leaves that taste like salty pretzels? Get his book, trust me (he's not paying me to say that by the way).

But while perennials themselves are more resilient than annuals, we want our staple crops to be the toughest, most resilient of the perennials that will survive the worst of conditions. Then we can begin to grow crops like the one's in Eric's book. The toughest are usually the native plants or introduced species which we classify as being aggressive or invasive. They're largely considered invasive because we typically plant them next to weak, shallow rooted plants. When grown in harmony with other perennial/biennial, spreading plants, they don't get as out of control. And in cases where they do, it's our job to intervene and bring the system back into balance. Unfortunately there aren't many resources that document perennial plant communities that grow together so we largely have to experiment ourselves and share our findings with one another. This is what we plan to do at Raven's Roots and if you've had success growing perennial plant communities, we'd love to hear about it.

So where to go from here? I'd recommend taking a class or getting a book on wild edibles in whatever region that you live in. See which ones you like and study the plant as it grows in the wild. Once you have an understanding of it, and it's appropriate, plant it within a garden at home. Also take note of what plants grow beside them in the wild. Mimicking nature should be our ultimate goal when it comes crop production so get out there and learn these resilient plants. Just remember to be 100% sure that the plant is what you think it is before you consume it -many wild plants can make you sick and even kill you. That's why it's best to take a class if there is one offered in your area. 

So in the end, everything is going to be alright. I think.