Monday, September 19, 2011
Feeling Insecure about Food Security? Try tree cereals...
The acorn shells go down the Insinkerator, where the corn cobs went last night, to turn into more gas for preparing more acorns and fertilizer to grow more corn.
And when I cook like this, adding the modern insight of the use of ancient bacteria to make biogas to complement a traditional Native American meal of corn and "A-corn" and then think about this whole "food vs. fuel" debacle and the whole sham of threatened food security and failing agriculture and loss of topsoil and the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and... and... well, it almost makes me lose my appetite.
What food security are they talking about? The security of agribusiness profits? What imminent starvation are we supposed to worry about? Starving the bank accounts of fertilizer and pesticide companies?
I'm not going to make light of the terrible famine threatening more than 10 million people right now in areas of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda because repairing the broken agricultural system now is like the proverbial "fixing an ailing airplane while in flight." The African people used to be able to feed themselves quite reliably before the shift from complex horticulture to monoculture cash cropping was made to serve export led economies under colonialism (and then, with accelerating destructiveness, in its industrialization obsessed aftermath). You can read much more about that topic in "Seeing Like A State: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed" by James Scott (a graduate school classic that everybody should read). And yes, there is terrible food insecurity around the world right now because of the unsustainable practices that companies use to grow most of our luxury foods as well as our staples.
But there is no cause for panic if we start investing now in a tree-cereal based silviculture rather than a grain-based field agriculture.
I was meditating about this road back to food security last weekend while gathering acorns from the decorative trees next to the farm house we stayed at in the French valley of Lorraine and thinking, "just look at the thousands and thousands of acorns lying on the lawn here, slowly rotting away, while the newspapers decry the imminent famines threatening humanity. A Native American would be out here harvesting for the long winter."
And these were just the oaks immediately adjacent to the guest house. Along the way toward the boat house and the dock, from where we were paddling our kayaks in view of the sailboats that wealthy Germans relax in on the weekends, were dozens more majestic oaks, and walking along the entire path one heard the constant rain of falling acorns -- food, falling like manna from heaven from the wonderfully shading canopy above. And this is to say nothing about the surrounding woods and forests where the density of oak trees could feed an army.
Acorns, from Quercus spp., like the seeds other "tree cereals" (the Ramon or Breadnut tree - Brosimum alicastrum - that I studied in Guatemala for my Master's Degree in International Development is another great example) fall as part of a "mast fruiting strategy" that certain trees use to overwhelm predators. The trees, which are giant forest emergents, only need a few individuals from that huge pool of potential seedlings to survive, and they need to get those seeds dispersed as far away from the mother tree as they can, to areas where it isn't as dark as immediately under the the branches from which they fell. So they supersaturate the space beneath them with delicacies on the statistical chance that a squirrel (in the case of the acorns) or bat or coatimundi (in the case of breadnuts) will carry them off to another more favorable location... and then forget where they left them.
The superabundance of tree cereals is something to behold. It is a delight to walk beneath the mother trees during the mast fruiting time. In 1998, while researching urban agroforestry possibilities with Dr. Raul Hinojosa and Dr. Susanna B. Hecht on a grant from UCLA, I stumbled upon the Mayan breadnut on the path to the ruins of Tikal because I literally "stumbled upon" thousands of seeds tripping up my feet. In France last week I stumbled upon so many acorns my mind flipped back to a Sunday afternoon in 1985, gathering acorns at the Arnold Arboretum near Harvard where I was finishing my degree in Biological Anthropology. Fascinated by hunter/gatherer cultures, on a whim, I and my girlfriend decided to see if we could make acorn muffins. They turned out quite nicely, once we had leached the tannins out of the acorns.
The Indians had a way of doing this that required no external energy inputs: they would fill a basket with shelled acorns and place it in a fast flowing stream for two days or so. The water would leach out the tannins (tannins are the astringent chemicals that make wine tart and tea brown) and then they would pound the acorns into a flour meal for bread making. So when the pilgrims came over and were saved that famous Thanksgiving it wasn't just corn bread they were taught about, but acorn bread. And many of our American pioneers (including my direct ancestors, the Robidoux's) lived off of the sweet acorns (and chestnuts and other tree cereals) that they learned about.
But somehow history has neglected to give thanks to the role of tree cereals in creating food security and we were taught to view giant forest trees like the mighty oaks and chestnuts and breadnuts as sources of timber instead of staple food. So we cut down the best form of sustainable agriculture the world has ever known and turned to the grasses, like corn and wheat and rice, for our daily bread, instead of the acorns and breadnuts and chestnuts that we should have held close to our chests and our hearts.
Tree cereals, unlike cereals made from grains, have no adverse environmental impact. Once established they require almost no irrigation (they provide their own microclimates, transpiring water that they gather from deep underground that creates the conditions for better rainfall in a self-perpetuating water cycle). They require no fertilizer (their dropping leaves and the symbiotic bacteria in their rhizomes, along with the nutrient rich dungs brought in by their resident birds and squirrels and chipmunks and insects and other fauna) create a self-perpetuating nutrient cycle. They suffer from no erosion or topsoil loss -- in fact they prevent it even as they build more topsoil. And they need no shade structures for seedling germination -- they provide the shade structure. They even provide plenty of shade and water and food for the animals we like to eat -- for cows (orginally forest animals called Aurochs), for chickens (originally forest fowl) for pigs (original forest swine). So with a tree based agriculture there is no longer any "rainforest beef" or "animals vs. trees" situation. It is all win-win. You can have your cow and eat it too.
A tree based agriculture is also ideal for producing energy -- trees can and should be intercropped, and the superabundance of deadfall and fruitfall that is not suitable for human consumption can be turned directly into biogas while all the nutrients are immediately returned -- supercharged by microbial fermentation byproducts -- as fertilizer to the agroforestry soil.
In the year 2000 I lived off of nothing but forest products -- breadnut tortillas, avocado and lemon slices - for three weeks on our research station at the rainforest edge in Macanche in Guatemala (near Tikal). It was easy to harvest the food - no tilling or ploughing in the hot sun, no sowing, no weeding, nothing but gathering and picking... in the shade! I felt the same elation gathering acorns in a cool microclimate under the trees on a hot day in France last week.
And now I'm preparing the harvest for some muffins -- acorn muffins, not corn muffins. I've eaten acorns right off the tree (they are a bit bitter but edible in small quantities; for some interesting reason they make the water that you drink to wash out the bitter taste suddenly taste sweet), but obviously you have to remove the tannins to do anything useful with them, hence the boiling with biogas shown in the pictures.
It may have been the need to prepare the acorns by leaching out the tannins that made people hungry for quick profits forgo tree cereals and stick with grains, but I'm not sure about that. A more likely explanation is that tree cereals require a sunk investment (the planting of trees) and a waiting period (from 5 to 15 years depending on the species) for starting the thereafter perennial harvest. In areas where forests were intact this would have been competitive; where forests were destroyed (as in Germany and other Celtic or Druid tree worshiping societies where the Romans deliberately chopped and burned all the forests they could to subdue the people) a farmer would do better by forgoing sustainability and looking forward to quick return annual crops. He/she would then know that if the family was kicked off their land, they could start again somewhere else -- tree crops for food security require another kind or security -- land tenure. All of the other arguments against tree cereals don't hold up under scrutiny: The effort for separating wheat from chaff seems to be not much less than shelling acorns, and the removal of the tannins is simple enough to do at home; it could be accomplished even more efficiently on an industrial scale using the same investment of water and energy that are used in many other food processing activities.
Besides the loss of forest resources through tree felling (much of it historically done for building navies and creating charcoal for manufacturing industries and metallurgy as well as for construction and furniture) and the loss of land tenure by the enclosure acts, our lack of interest in tree cereals may be an insidious cultural thing -- the grassland people displaced the forest people and replaced silvacultural norms with pastoral norms.
It is said that in America and in Arabia there were and still are oak trees cultivated for millenia by agroforesters whose acorns are sweet and have no appreciable tannin content. (In Iraq they were called "Bulut" and came from the "white oak".) These are said to be so sweet you can eat them off the tree. The acorns from these varieties require no preparation other than shelling and grinding. In Europe these cultivars may have existed too and may still exist. I haven't found them yet, so I have to remove the tannin from the one's I gathered in France . Lacking a fast flowing stream to leach away the tannins I have to use a more energy intense procedure -- I boil them several times and pour the brown tannin tea off until they are ready to be turned into flour. I'm using biogas made from food waste and the acorn shells so I don't feel so bad about the energy investment, and there are lots of ways to use waste heat to do the trick. The water consumption is negligible; in any event the tannin and nutrient rich gas-heated water, like all of our cooking water, is returned to the biodigester to keep it at the right temperature and provide feedstock for tomorrow's gas.
I'm not going to say that there aren't challenges we will face if we want to return the world to a tree-cereal based agro-economy. Every shift in culture - particularly agri-culture, takes time and innovation But I'm facing these challenges in our own kitchen (following the Solar CITIES "please do try this at home" and "bathrooms and kitchens are the fulcrum of social change" philosophies) and learning to solve them as best I can. And you can too. Next time you take a walk in an area that has oak trees, gather a bag of acorns, come home and shell them, boil out the tannins and make some muffins. And while you do so think about the alternatives -- no, go and actually try them out -- go try to harvest your own wheat or corn or rice and turn it into muffins. Ask yourself which would ultimately be easier -- preparing and fertilizing and irrigating and weeding a large horizontal patch of soil for next years' harvest of grain cereals, and going out there with a sickle or a combine and turning them into our daily bread, or placing some baskets and nets each season under the shade of a glade of trees and turning what drops into them by gravity, after running them through a shelling tumbler and soaking them in water, into your daily bread.
And if agro-industry as we know it falls apart or is interrupted for some reason (a spike in fossil fuel prices, an economic disturbance, a terrible drought or frost), and you have to put bread on the table for your family that you have to make yourself, ask yourself "which option would make me feel more food secure?"
(Check back here later for a photo of the resulting acorn muffins!)