The Risks in Staple Crops

This morning the Independent ran a story entitled Wheat Rust: the fungal disease that threatens to destroy the world crop. I was reminded of another plant disease story they ran at the beginning of the month, Bananageddon: Millions face hunger as deadly fungus Panama disease decimates global crop.

Setting aside the somewhat tabloid-style “scare” headlines (not to mention an aberration of language like “bananageddon” being committed), both these stories do  have a very valid fundamental point in common. Both illustrate just how much humanity relies on a very limited number of food crops, worldwide, and being over-reliant on  a limited number of food sources means we’re more vulnerable to crop failures on a large scale.

To put our dependence into context, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations provides some figures.

Of more than 50 000 edible plant species in the world, only a few hundred contribute significantly to food supplies. Just 15 crop plants provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake, with three rice, maize and wheat – making up two-thirds of this. These three are the staples of over 4 000 million people.

That’s a sobering statement in the face of a wheat rust that threatens to reduce harvests.

One way to try and mitigate these disease threats is the scientific approach – to try and develop resistant varieties, to figure out ways to control the disease.

I don’t have a lab and trained staff at my disposal so I’m adopting another approach to improve my  personal food security – not just growing my own (after all, what’s to stop my plants getting some kind of disease?) but widening my diet.

If I grew nothing but wheat on my allotment, for example, then the whole crop, my entire year’s effort, could be wiped out by one disease. If I grow wheat and barley, then I halve my chance of a total crop failure. I double my chance of having something to take home to eat. If I grow wheat, barley, oats…. you get the picture.

This brings us back to my dahlia growing experiment – an alternative food crop that will widen my diet and reduce yet further the risk that I won’t have anything to eat (assuming it works, of course…).

I’m always on the lookout for novel foods to try – though I also have to watch for their growing requirements. The combination of a short growing season, a fairly dry climate (for the UK, at least!), the possibility of cold winters and, usually, a quite late spring combine to rule out some plants I’d otherwise love to experiment with – oca, for example needs a 7 month growing season and I’m lucky if I get 5. Tea needs 50 inches of rain and I only get 28 on average.

I am also trialling root parsley this year – not one I’ve grown or eaten before, but it should do well in our climate and provide us with another winter crop to help bridge the “hungry gap” of late winter and early spring, when the stored food runs short but the new year’s growth hasn’t yet matured enough to eat.

Another crop that grows very well around here is barley (as you’d expect, living as I do in Whisky country!) and I will shortly be sowing barley and, later in the year, buckwheat as cereal crops. These, particularly the barley, will also provide me with straw to make litter for the bunnies and chickens, which will cycle back through the compost heap to return the nutrients to the soil for next year. I haven’t tried growing cereals before but I’m hopeful that in time I can grow enough seed on the allotment to sprout to feed the livestock, which will further reduce our dependence on world markets and big industry.

In the meantime, this afternoon two more potatoes and another 5 jerusalem artichokes are up on the allotment and the turf wall is growing!

7 square metres of turf. Lots more still to go!

7 square metres of turf. Lots more still to go!



One thought on “The Risks in Staple Crops

  1. I’m also trying different crops. This year we’ve added achocha to the list as a cucumber substitute that’s apparently disease free. I’m always on the lookout for new plants particularly perennials.

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