Food Plants - PerennialPlants

The Importance of Food from a Different Source: Eating Perennials

Permaculture and perennial plants seem to be inextricably linked, and such is the case by design, of course. When building a permanent ecosystem, food-based or otherwise, it makes little sense to do so with annual plants. They die; thus, they require cultivation again and again, as well as an abundance of minerals and nutrients to support such fast growth cycles.

While some edible annuals may readily self-seed, the quick turnover of plant to seed and back again makes them, on the whole, more like wild plants, finding their own particular niches amongst the larger, longer-standing holistic system. As designers and cultivators, self-seeding annuals allow us to harvest without extra work, but finding comparable perennials seems the better choice.

In other words, to stay afloat as a part of our forest element, without constant outside inputs, annuals need the stability of a perennial system. That’s how sustainability works. And, a sustainable food system requires much the same. It’s not to say that we can’t have our annuals anymore, but what’s on the typical dinner plate today is in disproportionate balance for a healthy planet and, for that matter, a healthy population.

What We Eat Annually

Lacinato Kale (Courtesy of Jeff Aldrich)
Lacinato Kale (Courtesy of Jeff Aldrich)

The state of the industrialized food system is no longer the mystery it once was. Beyond those of us into permaculture, numerous documentaries, books, and reports have been published detailing the misdirection of the world’s food supply under the guidance of capital interests over actually feeding people. Neither the health of the plant nor its people really factor in to what the typical North American, European or Australian eats. Worse still, the same dysfunction has spread to less developed countries, not only via growing food to export to “advanced” nations for processing but also by creating a new dietary dependence on cash crops and manufactured food. The fresh is shipped away, and bags of snack food shipped back in.

For a minute, forget GMOs, disregard monocultures, and ignore agrochemicals, the majority of the plants we are eating still come from annual outputs. Three annual grains—corn, wheat, and rice—are in the top five of what we produce and consume globally, with potatoes (annual) and sugarcane (misused, water-hogging perennial) rounding out the list. None of these are particularly great for providing the vitamins and minerals our bodies need. Even for those on more of health kick, wanting to include a rainbow of organic fruit and vegetables, there is still a huge dependence on annuals to provide this.

It’s as if—and this is because it was—our diets were designed by the same geniuses whose vast monocultures and agricultural chemicals have put the entire planet on the verge of ecological collapse. And, more negative results are coming in: Those of us in the “first” world, eating industrialized food, are riddled with chronic diseases, like cancer and diabetes. The connections are becoming more and more glaring with each new food documentary, each unearthed scientific study. The woes of the modern diet are being talked about, so it’s time to aim some of this energy into the sources of this food.

Note: We’ve not even included factory meat production here and the vast amount of annual crops, especially corn and soybeans, that go into feeding captive animals an unhealthy diet, furthering the horrendous footprint hot dogs put on the planet.

Why We Should Eat Less Annuals

Rhubarb Stalks (Courtesy of Christian Guthier)
Rhubarb Stalks (Courtesy of Christian Guthier)

Annual vegetables are undoubtedly delicious and often nutritious, and they are easier to purchase than perennial choices (and more and more and more.). But, the fact remains that a diet predominantly based on annual crops—most of our diets, including mine—is not the right choice for several reasons.

Environmentally speaking, they are energy intensive. Most annuals we can buy are grown in an unhealthy way, even when they are organic. They require huge external inputs of fertilizer because the stability of a permanent ecosystem isn’t in place to support the soil and the necessary microorganisms. Also, within the current system, the use of machinery and, thus, petroleum becomes much larger as soils are turned, fertilizers applied, water pumped, and on the familiar list goes.

Ultimately, in terms of health, all of this effort and energy—at least on the industrial scale—seems to produce lesser versions of the vegetables our great-grandparents once enjoyed. The flavor intensity and nutrient content isn’t there anymore because the soil no longer provides all that is needed. Everything becomes dependent on human interference, and this generally comes in the form of what’s cheapest, what’s quickest, and what’s profitable. Basing our diets on what’s inexpensive and convenient is exactly what has weakened our health and the health of planet.

In essence, eating mostly annual plants, especially ones we buy at the supermarket, and even more especially ones from the top five, perpetuates the very system producing so many of our problems. Unfortunately, that system has rigged things against us: Subsidies go to corn and potatoes, not asparagus and Egyptian walking onions, and supermarket shelves are overwhelmingly stocked with corn syrup, soy byproducts, and refined sugar. The way we eat, just as the way we produce food, needs a complete overhaul.

How We Eat More Perennials

Plantains (Courtesy of Luigi Guarino)
Plantains (Courtesy of Luigi Guarino)

Obviously, the easy way to have more perennials in our diet is to simply be aware of what they are. If we don’t know the better options, how are we expected to make the right choices? However, even being aware of the choices has its problems, as perennial options don’t tend to be as readily available for purchase. So, we are once again back to idea of growing our own food and, in doing so, leaning towards perennial crops versus annuals ones.

There are plenty of articles (check the links above) and books out there to help with this perennial take on cultivation, including the various permaculture manuals in circulation, but growing methods and eating habits are two different things. And, this is where moving to a predominantly perennial diet becomes truly challenging, at least at the beginning. We have to change our staple food sources.

Bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes are part of just about every prototypical Western meal. Toast and hash browns. Sandwich and potato chips. Spaghetti and garlic bread. Pizza. Hamburger. Hot dog. Bangers and mash. Fish and chips. But, even beyond fast food, into healthy and well-balanced diets, we are accustomed to having at least one, often more, of these elements in our meals, accompanied by a slew of annual vegetables. Honestly, to do otherwise will require concerted effort. It will require thinking outside of the box. It will require acquiring new tastes for what to eat.

The choices are there, but we have to be prepared seek them out and reconfigure out eating habits. There are plenty of greens—kale, chard, Sylvetta arugula, sorrel, garlic chives—to substitute into salads, and common fruits—apples, plums, pears, berries, oranges— and nuts—pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, macadamia—tend to be perennials. There are great starches as well, stomach fillers like sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, groundnuts, and plantains, which are already well established in some cultures. And, there are also many great vegetables—asparagus, rhubarb, okra, walking onions—and legumes—pigeon pea, Scarlet runner beans—that can become more prominent in our diet. All colors, shapes, textures, and sizes are available.

But, these aren’t what we are accustomed to using as the foundation of our meals, so It’s still a change that can be difficult, especially for those of us buying our food. But, it’s a choice—amongst many others—that we need to start making more regularly.

Hazelnuts (Courtesy of Kate Ter Haar)
Hazelnuts (Courtesy of Kate Ter Haar)

Header: Pigeon Pea (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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