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 March 03, 2020
Can ancient grains save the planet from climate-induced starvation?

 Sixty miles from Reno, Nevada, surrounded by arid desert land, is Fallon. Historically, farmers here have grown alfalfa. In recent years, besieged by drought, farmers have had to choose whether to plant. Now, John Cushman and his research team from the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Nevada, Reno are monitoring approximately 1,200 acres of an ancient grain that originated in Ethiopia called teff. It needs a quarter of the water that alfalfa takes, and has a shorter growing season, says Cushman.

Plus, teff is gluten-free with more iron and fiber and livestock fodder, making it doubly attractive to farmers. So, when farmers decide to plant teff, says Cushman, it gives them "insurance that they will be able to have some farming in drought years versus no farming at all." It's one of a range of old, climate-resistant grains --- some dating back over 7,000 years --- that researchers globally are trying to revive, as the answer to food security challenges of the future.

Currently, global agriculture, a monocultural system, concentrates on a few staple grain crops --- wheat, rice, corn and soybeans --- that contribute 60 percent of the plant-based calories humans consume. The problem? Concentrating on a few crops makes them more susceptible to pests, diseases and climate change. Research in 2019 by Dr. Deepak Ray of the University of Minnesota found that climate change is already impacting crop yields, sometimes as much as 21 percent in Europe. These numbers translate to a 1 percent reduction in calories produced, which equates to 35 trillion calories or the subsistence diet of 1,800 calories a day for nearly 50 million people, says Ray.

That imminent crisis is sparking a wave of research across Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia and the U.S. on alternatives in the form of grains that can withstand droughts and warmer climates while also producing more nutritional value than corn or wheat. Purdue University's Global Food Security Center is working to improve sorghum varieties.

From 2015 to 2017, The Millet Project, a partnership between Indian and American scientists, tested small-scale millet cultivation in Northern California. Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia are trying to isolate ancient strains of wheat. Like Cushman's team, University of California, Davis scientists are studying teff. And Protein2Food, an EU-funded project, is exploring ancient, protein-rich grains such as quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat.

"Ancient grains bring diversity, higher nutritional quality, high tolerance to climate change," says Dr. Sven-Erik Jacobsen, the former project coordinator of Protein2Food and a researcher on tropical crops at the University of Copenhagen.

Millets have been grown in India for thousands of years. Other grains like teff, fonio, pearl and finger millet originated in sub-Saharan Africa, West Africa and North Africa. But as the focus of the modern agriculture industry shifted to mass production and standardization, governments and companies emphasized the cultivation of higher-yield, genetically modified wheat, corn and rice, relegating ancient grains to the margins.

"In the past, we had a wider variety of crops not just in the United States, but across the world, but over time due to policies and investments in specific crops, these became the top crops," says Ray.

Research in 2019 by University of Toronto scientist Adam Martin found that crop diversity globally continues to decline, with countries focusing only on wheat, rice, corn and soybeans, all grown on almost half the world's agricultural lands. What happens when decreased crop yields due to climate change simultaneously strike multiple countries, crippling the global food supply? That's a "key danger," according to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That's why the goal at Protein2Food is to "reduce meat consumption and replace meat with plant-based proteins," says Jacobsen, who himself is growing quinoa in Denmark. Originally from Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, quinoa --- a gluten-free grain --- is the best-seller among ancient grains, selling in more than 70 countries. To adapt it to Denmark's climate, Jacobsen had to cross various lines of South American quinoa. Now rotating crops with quinoa, Denmark can "achieve better soil fertility, a lower risk of pest and diseases as well as a decreased use of pesticides and increased nutritional quality," he says.

Ancient grains are known to serve as good sources of macro and micronutrients. They contain a high level of phytochemicals that help reduce inflammation. Studies suggest they might also help fight Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. According to the HealthFocus International 2018 Global Trend Study, 50 percent of consumers are interested in ancient grains, and almost 40 percent include them in their weekly diets.

That growing interest from consumers is now expanding the market for ancient grains and attracting giant farms and smaller farms alike. The World Wide Fund for Nature is partnering with food giant Unilever to promote the West African grain fonio. Organic farmers like Kandarian Organic Farms in Los Osos, California, Lentz Spelt Farms in eastern Washington, or Bluebird Grain Farms in northern Washington are cultivating a range of ancient grains.

Still, challenges do exist in growing ancient grains. Former head of The Millet Project, Amrita Hazra, learned through the effort that U.S. farmers did not know much about farming millet. "Although our farmer collaborators were enthusiastic about growing millet, they lacked the machinery and technological know-how," she says.

Hazra is currently working with millet farmers and entrepreneurs in India, learning about processing the grain for small farmers. "India is the largest producer of millet in the world," says Hazra. "I feel strongly that the knowledge that Indian farmers have about millet growing and processing technology should be made available to other countries in the world." Ultimately, more farmer-friendly processing technology in the U.S. will grow "more drought-friendly, climate-smart grains," she says.

With consumers clamoring for ancient grains, Hazra's hopes are likely to come true. But for Fallon, Nevada, and other places, the ultimate question is whether that change will come fast enough. They're already running out of time. "We are living in the future conditions here and now," says Cushman.