Amber Waves of … What?

It looks like wheat has it rough right now. The number of people who eschew the grain (and its gluteny relatives, including barley and rye) keeps growing, and now the latest issue of Gourmet is questioning whether there should even be an annual wheat harvest in this country. “A small band of environmentally minded researchers have begun to question the sustainability of the grains that have dominated human diets since the dawn of agriculture,” Steven Johnson reports in the glossy’s Eco Watch section. Johnson cites erosion and nitrogen runoff from fertilizer as the two main ecological problems with our current wheat-centric agricultural system.

But the piece isn’t actually about a contingent of vehement antiwheaties (which I was kind of eager to read); get a little further into it and you realize it’s about scientists who want to supplant the annual wheat harvest with perennial ones. As Johnson explains,

[F]ields planted with perennial wheat wouldn’t suffer problems caused by soil erosion. The new plants would look similar to their annual cousins, but their root systems would be deep and long-lived, like those of the native prairie grasses that once covered the Great Plains. Just the seed-bearing stalks would be harvested [instead of the whole plant, as with annual wheat], leaving that network of roots in the ground during the months when erosion is at its worst, recycling nutrients and keeping the valuable topsoil in place.

Perennials would also cost less to farmers, who wouldn’t have to plant or fertilize each year, and the resulting grain fields would more closely mirror “all the world’s thriving ecosystems,” which are made up of “a complex web of perennial species,” Johnson writes.

Breeders are now working on developing perennial wheat, using the plant’s genome as a guide—but so far this group of scientists is emphatically opposed to genetic engineering, preferring instead to “artificially cultivate a more ‘natural’ existence for [wheat plants]” through traditional breeding. I wonder how long these scientists’ opposition to GMO perennials will last, though. It isn’t likely to extend to the developing world, as Johnson explains in an online interview with Gourmet:

[T]he obvious direction we seem to be headed is a scenario where the developed world goes backward in time, and the developing world goes forward: The developed world tries to recreate the older, slower, more local agricultural patterns, while the developing world embraces more ‘advanced’ biotechnology and genetic engineering. The developed world can afford to slow down and focus less on maximizing yields, because, of course, the problem in a country like the United States is obesity, not starvation. The developing world doesn’t have that luxury.

Johnson concludes that a biotech boom in developing nations won’t necessarily be bad, as long as they can stop using genetic modification once they’ve developed—and that, of course, remains to be seen. What do you think? Is there such a thing as responsible GM?

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