Dr. Stephen Carmody founded the Native Cultigen Project at Sewanee: The University of the South. (Photo courtesy Stephen Carmody)
Looking to the past for solutions today
One of the most recognized environmental crises we face is food production. Many looking for alternatives to unsustainable industrial agriculture look to methods that are just as industrialized and concentrated as current methods, which is really just making food production less unsustainable rather than really getting to the root of the problem – maize.
Here’s a quick overview of the issue:
The mass adoption of maize and a few other crops approximately 1,000 years ago allowed food production to keep up with growing populations. But this process reduced our plant food-base from over 7,000 plants to about 15. Today, a mere 15 crops, or .2% of our historical plant food-base, provide 90% of the world’s daily calories, while maize, rice and wheat account for two-thirds of this total.
In the process of selecting for maize and other annual crops, we abandoned reliable perennial crops, which require little to no fertilizer or pest control, and do not need to be replanted every season.
More recently, the mass-production of maize, rice and wheat has significantly altered our environments, through the use of energy-intensive artificial growth stimulators, such as fertilizers and pesticides, and the development of colossal corporate-controlled mono-crop plantations that seem to work in the short run, but degrade land, soils, and human health (check out the increase in obesity and type II diabetes in the U.S. since the 1960s) in the long run.
In addition, the inequity of modern agriculture is such that one billion people in developed countries are overfed while two billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.
In recognizing that modern industrial agriculture is unsustainable, and that at the root of the problem is a global dependence on 15 corporate-controlled crops, how can we move towards sustainable agricultural practices that can provide the sustenance necessary for a rapidly growing global population?
Enter the Native Cultigen Project.
Inspired by archaeological excavations based in the uplands of the Cumberland Plateau in Southeastern Tennessee, Dr. Stephen Carmody, a postdoctoral fellow in Archaeology at the University of the South and founder of the Native Cultigen Project, discovered native perennial plants that were widely used throughout prehistory, eventually domesticated, and became an integral part of the past foodways of native peoples of this region.
The theory is that, by understanding agricultural practices of those indigenous to this region, the Native Cultigen Project may be able to ignite a new wave of sustainable agriculture – one that looks to the past for solutions for the future.
The Native Cultigen Project is focusing specifically on chenopod, amaranth, and sumpweed, which are just a few of the perennial crops discovered by Dr. Carmody in his excavation of this region.
These are unconventional food sources today, yet they might as well be super crops. All three of these are extremely easy to maintain and harvest, and yield seeds packed with ridiculously high nutrient contents and several health benefits. It is no wonder these sustained prehistoric Native American groups for thousands of years.
When I went down to the farm, I was fortunate to witness Dr. Carmody’s experimental threshing procedure, which simply uses a screen on top of a makeshift table, and human hands to separate the husks from the seeds.
These plants, or weeds really, require hardly any water (they are currently thriving under extreme drought conditions here on the Cumberland Plateau), no fertilizer nor pesticides; they thrive in marginal soils, and promote local biodiversity, the likes of which have naturally adapted to being attracted to this fauna. These plants are also expected to improve soil fertility for these reasons.
Once harvested, these plants can be put to several uses. Ryan MacDonald, Sewanee Class of 2017, is currently using the amaranth seeds to grow microgreens, which will soon be sold to the University Dining Hall for soups and salad garnishes, and will be a test of the commercial value and potential of these plants.
Among other uses, these plants’ calorie-rich seeds can also be eaten plain or ground into flour. These last two uses in particular express their invaluable potential in developing countries experiencing severe malnourishment, drought, soil infertility, all of which will only become more widespread with climate change.
The video below illustrates the ease and gracefulness of separating seeds from chaff.
Similar projects can be taken up in different parts of the world, and would likely find different crops indigenous to those regions, but regardless, the message and potential of the Native Cultigen Project remains the same. Rather than looking for ways to reduce the unsustainability of current agricultural practices, why not first look to the past for local solutions that individuals can tackle head on, all while improving local biodiversity, environmental resilience and food security?
This project establishes an alternative to the prevailing agricultural model, which is centralized and entirely dependent on 15 annual crops. Instead, the Native Cultigen Project emphasizes the localized, sustainable production of those plants that naturally thrive in climates and under conditions specific to a region; plants that, quite possibly, could provide undernourished, climate- vulnerable populations with alternative, highly resilient and nutrient-rich food sources. So start digging!
For more visuals and information, check out the Native Cultigen Project’s Instagram!