I’ve been pondering my last post, about how perennial agriculture might save the planet. Or restoration agriculture, or agroforestry, or forest gardens; whatever you want to call it. I am pretty sure that the broad outlines of this idea are correct—we’re going to need some sort of polyculture for more symbiotic and diverse agricultural systems, and the use of perennials that only have to be planted once will help to save soil and energy, and all of the other positives I wrote about the other day. Extrapolating out from this results in some interesting ramifications, however. For example—wine or tea would be a better environmental choice than beer or soda, all else being equal. Wine is made from perennial plantings of long-lived vines, and tea from the leaves of trees, whereas beer is typically made from wheat or barley or some other annual grain, from fields that are tilled, with all the resulting soil erosion, fertilizer inputs, water contamination, fossil fuel use, etc., and soda is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, which is made with corn from similar fields in production facilities powered with coal. Likewise, a snack of nuts would end up being better for the planet than a bag of chips, maple syrup or honey better than cane sugar or high-frustose corn syrup, grapes or apples better than melons or cucumbers.
This also adds yet another notch in favor of grass-fed beef, which I already think is a good environmental and health choice. Properly-grazed fields improve the soil, and the meat from grass-fed beef has a nutritional profile more like wild game, which can’t be said for high-fat meat from grain-fed beef. But, grass pasture is also a perennial—such pasture doesn’t have to be tilled and sprayed or fertilized (the cattle do the fertilizing part all on their own). This perennial aspect only broadens the difference, in my mind, between grass-fed beef and your typical factory-farmed, grain-fed beef. One is good for the planet and reduced energy usage, the other a disaster. The same would hold true for cheese made from grass-fed cows, like that made by Steve Getz of Dancing Cow Farm in Bridport, Vermont. (photos, short article here), compared to cheese made with milk from confined dairy operations.
But, then I had to curb my enthusiasm. I’m not sure there are any hard-and-fast rules here. Even the restoration agriculture proponents grow some annual crops in the alleys between the trees. Plus, I garden organically in slightly-raised beds where the soil is mulched, and I guarantee that I lose zero topsoil in the process, nor do I have any other negative aspects. In fact, with mulch and compost, there’s no doubt that my soil improves every year.
So, it is too soon damn all annuals by definition, or to denounce beer as bad for the planet. A more nuanced view might be called for here. Perhaps this—organic is good, perennials are good, any farming where sustainabilily and the humane treatment of animals is a priority is good, and we need to buy our food, when we can, from people who produce it this way. Typically, this means buying from nearby, where you can go see for yourself. And, as always, it is good to support these operations with your dollars—such demand drives these methods of production.
Short of this, the answers become less clear. Tea is a perennial, but tea plantations are sometimes vast monocultures carved out of vibrant tropical ecosystems. Grass-fed beef is a good choice, but perhaps not if it is “rainforest beef”, from pasture that was formerly rainforest. Ditto for a vast array of foodstuffs. Like everything else, there aren’t many really easy answers.