Why We Need Prairies, Not Lawns and Corn

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 Native tall prairie grass has been replaced by Eurasian tall fescue grass and petroleum-based grains like corn.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!






8 responses to “Why We Need Prairies, Not Lawns and Corn”

  1. thomas sherman Avatar
    thomas sherman

    great story: where were all our university ag schools when all this was happening?

    1. Justin West Avatar

      Where were the ag schools? They’ve been busy developing ways to kick the can down the road with synthetic amendments, more powerful machinery, and stronger antibiotics to keep unnaturally fed cattle from dying. The status quo of the current agricultural system was created in University classrooms and research stations. Now that we’re 100 years into “agricultural science”, they are just starting to realize this might have been a mistake. It will likely take another 30 years to reverse the thought processes that brought us to this point, and only then because these systems will be failing completely.

    2. Rod Avatar

      Where were YOU Thomas?

  2. Jason Morris Avatar
    Jason Morris

    I am a conservationist and work in sustainable agriculture. I am a huge advocate for restoring native prairies, but this article has a few problems:
    1) It fails to mention that Native Americans also grew cultivated crops like maize, squash, beans, sunflowers, pumpkins, and tobacco.
    2) It trivializes how hard gathering, preparing, and storing native seeds, roots, and fruits actually was.
    3) It fails to account for how converting millions of acres of cropland to native prairie would cause an unprecedented food shortage, which is further complicated by an exponentially increasing population.

    All that being said, I believe we could make a lot of headway by converting lawns to native vegetation, and the practice the article mentions of planting strips of native prairie among cropland is a great compromise that benefits water quality, wildlife, and the farmers themselves.

    1. Larry Avatar

      I agree. As the farming son of a farmer who won the county’s sustainable farmer of the year several years in the 80’s when everyone else was tearing everything up, it’s not nearly as easy as these “authors” make it seem. They give the extreme broad strokes, but leave out all the details because they seek the almighty click. It was much harder work for those people who were here before us than anyone will ever talk about and so much more difficult than the systems we have now and we can’t get our own people to do the work. They make these things sound so logical and people say “Hell Yeah! Why aren’t we doing it that way?” And then they’re deflated when they find out that it’s not entirely possible.

      We put filter strips around The downhill sides of our fields fields and have done what we can to reduce fertilizers by not taking any biomaterial off after harvest.

  3. Timothy Birthisel Avatar

    In reality, when the colonists arrived in NA it had already been perturbed, true megafauna like giant sloth and mastadons had been wiped out along with the big cats like lions and saber tooth tigers, no wonder the bison were super abundant.
    We need to look forward, not back to the past when humans were scarce. If we apply our neglected ecological principles and CARE for our world and people other than ourselves, we can save this beautiful planet. Now we realize the petroleum paradigm does not work we need to get about new designs that can evolve toward a better place, begin with “Back to Eden”

  4. Steven Bedford Avatar
    Steven Bedford

    Sorry ma’am, but this is all a bunch of bull! I’m sure you’re a progressive in every way shape and form except for how to feed 300,000,000+ people. What a foolish idea to think that our massive population can live off prairie grass, roots and bison. By the way, who’s going to replace that root once it’s yanked out of the ground?
    Do you fully expect nearly 300,000,000 people to leave their high-rise apartments in suburbia to go forage through the grasslands for their food?

    Absolute rubbish! I would be embarrassed if I were you, to even publish such a ludicrous, truly unsustainable, idea.

  5. Mleigh Avatar

    This would be a great idea if humans weren’t so greedy and our numbers weren’t so massive.
    The rate our civilization is growing and consuming is not sustainable. If we don’t start making new choices very soon, the choice is going to be made for us.