Why We Need Prairies, Not Lawns and Corn

September 30, 2017 at 4:16 pm

Replacing North American prairies with “amber fields of grain” and turf grass highlights insanity of agriculture

Once the defining landscape of the continent, more than 99% North America’s prairieland been destroyed by agriculture. Native tall prairie grass has been replaced by Eurasian tall fescue grass and petroleum-based grains like corn.

Why is that a problem? Because prairies are sustainable and agriculture is not.

The North American prairies took millions of years to form and have been supporting countless species of life here ever since. Native American hunter-gatherers, bison and other megafauna have lived in harmony and balance with the prairie for thousands of years.

In just over 150 years, European agriculturalists have plowed almost all of the native grasses up by their roots and left the once-rich topsoil depleted and barren (except where petroleum fertilizers have made it temporarily possible to continue growing mineral-deficient crops).

In addition to providing a free source of food for humans (and for the animals we eat), prairie plants are key in protecting against global warming, agricultural pollution, soil erosion, flooding, drought and the disappearance of bees.

“Prairie can absorb as much as 7 inches of rain from one storm with no runoff,” says Carol Davit, executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation in the Ted Talk below. “With its complex and deep roots, prairie is like an incredible sponge that helps prevent soil erosion and flooding.”

Prairie plants’ massive root systems can also absorb a ton of carbon per acre per year, helping neutralize CO2 emissions.

And unlike agricultural crops and lawns with short roots, prairie plants are unaffected by “drought,” aka their natural climate.

While bison are even better adapted to it, ranchers are finding native prairie forage is better for cattle too, helping them gain weight faster and keeping them healthier. This is in part because non-native grasses dry up in the summer.

“Having prairie is like having drought insurance,” Davit advises cattle ranchers.

Home to over 200 species of bees, prairies are critical to sustaining bee populations and our therefore our food security, Davit adds.

Researchers at the University of Iowa have found planting strips of prairie between row crops dramatically reduces the amount of fertilizer runoff and soil erosion, she says. If  done on a large scale, the practice could help lessen excess nutrients and sediment in the Mississippi River, which has created an enormous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that’s killing shrimp, fish and other sea life.

Additionally, University of Missouri researchers are finding that prairie soil microbes could reduce the amount of synthetic chemicals used in agriculture. Go figure.

Perhaps, the most important thing we lost along with the prairie was access to free, sustainable food, that we didn’t have to “work” for. Native Americans thrived on the roots, fruits, seeds and leaves of nutrient-dense prairie plants as well as on the bison, deer and antelope that grazed on native grasses.

Gathering plants grown by Mother Nature and hunting animals fatted off the natural landscape was a lot less labor intensive than plowing, fertilizing, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, storing and processing grains for both human and animal consumption.

When Native Americans watched European agriculturalists slaughter almost every last bison on the continent and tear up all the indigenous vegetation, only so they could fight the earth to make it produce unnatural food for their imported livestock kept in barns, they thought they were insane:

“Before the Civil War, between twenty and sixty million bison roamed the North American plains. By 1900, less than a thousand were still alive. As Black Elk, the famous Sioux Indian chief recalled, “I can remember when the bison were so many that they could not be counted, but more and more Wasichus (white men) came to kill them until there were only heaps of bones scattered where they used to be. The Wasichus did not kill them to eat; they killed them for the metal that makes them crazy, and they took only the hides to sell … You can see that the men who did this were crazy…” 

“It was a common farmers’ joke to tell the story of an old Indian who, having seen a plowed field for the first time, said to the farmer, ‘Wrong side up.’ The story was taken to be an illustration of the Indian’s ignorance, but in fact when the native grasses are turned under and the soil aerated, the organic matter decomposes faster. This creates a flush of nutrients available to cultivated crops, but when the crops are harvested the nutrients are removed with the harvest, and the soil continues to be depleted year after year. Today’s dependence on chemical fertilizers is evidence that perhaps there was more wisdom in that old Indian’s statement than was recognized at the time.”

The inefficiency of corn and lawns

Native Americans lived in a closed loop ecological system — a self-sufficient system that doesn’t rely on matter exchange with any part outside the system.

The prairie system was based on grass, the mega fauna that ate it, the humans that ate the mega fauna and the soil bacteria that ate the humans.

This is exactly the opposite modern agricultural systems, in which water, petroleum, machines and chemical fertilizers and pesticides must be brought in to fight the earth and force it to produce something other than what it was already producing… like corn.

Mother Earth was already producing food perfectly suited for cows and other ruminant animals — grass. Why on earth would we use untold amounts of energy and resources (chiefly oil) to force her to grow corn, which destroys cows guts, makes them terribly ill, destroys the environment and makes less nutritious meat and milk for humans?

Even crazier, why would we spend a ton of energy and resources planting turf grass not intended for animal consumption at all?

Even more acreage is dedicated to lawns in the United States (32 million acres) than corn.

The typical American lawn sucks up 10,000 gallons of supplemental water (non-rainwater) annually, and runoff from these lawns has contaminated 90% of American streams.

In total, Americans dump nearly 90 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides on lawns per year, making lawn care as much of a danger to our health and the environment as conventional agriculture. Exposure to lawn chemicals increases risk of childhood lukemia sevenfold.

Let’s put an end to the madness and restore the prairies!