Sustainably Yours: A Crop for Tomorrow – Nipa Grain

One of the most fascinating books I have ever read is called ‘Indian Givers- How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World’ by Jack Weatherford. The anthropologist author builds an iron clad case, chapter by chapter, about how North, Meso and South American natives have had sweeping influences on everything from the Constitution of the US, to launching industrial textiles above the limitations of sheep tending to the precious metal volume increase that capacitated the free market of global capitalism. But I have to say: my favorite part is Chapter 4. The Food Revolution.

Crops originating from North and South America have left such obvious impressions on international cuisine that we fail to see them. For example, the population explosion of 19th century Europe, fuelled by new energy sources, owed much of its traction to fuel in the form of carbohydrates – the South American Potato. We tend to dwell on Ireland’s potato famine and lose sight of the fact that the potato gave rise to the vast Irish multitudes who crossed the Atlantic to America, taking their place amongst the shapers of today’s society. One can also argue that much of the might of the Soviet Union is due to potato fuelled population growth.

I had a conversation in the recent past with an Italian in the area who was considering opening a restaurant. I asked him if he was planning to go “Italian all the way” or Italian-Mexican fusion. His horror at the mention of the word ‘fusion’, like it was an unspeakable thought to be banned from polite society, caught me off guard. “I.would.only.consider.PURE.Italian.cuisine.” he barked in no uncertain terms.

I found his reaction puzzling but couldn’t pinpoint why until later it dawned on me: what is pure Italian cuisine? More to the point, what is Italian cuisine without the humble tomato, originating from the Americas? What is it without pepper and zucchini? What is Italian polenta without corn? What are Italian pastries without chocolate and the American cacao? What is Italian espresso without coffee? All of these crops originated from the Americas, in most cases from tropical parts like where we live. Thank goodness Italian cooks were not so puritanical at the thought of using foreign ingredients! Otherwise I guarantee your lasagna would not be nearly so delicious.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with sustainability, the topic I’m supposed to be writing about. It’s this: Distichlis palmeri, otherwise known as Nipa grain. Nipa is a Mexican native that may hold the key to future grain production in the world. It has two very interesting properties: 1) Nipa grows in salty water. It is native to brackish deltas which means, unlike 99% of other agricultural crops requiring freshwater, Nipa thrives in saline scenarios. As freshwater resources become more taxed around the more, this makes for a very interesting feature indeed. 2) The second feature of Nipa is that it is a perennial grain. This means that the annual rigmarole of plowing, sowing, harvesting, threshing, and tilling is very simplified – no tilling needed! Importantly, it means that soil structure doesn’t need to be compromised by industrial tilling practices, leading to erosion. In the end, civilization is much safer when there is plenty of topsoil to go around.

Keep your feelers out for this Mexican grain crop, as sustainability movers and shakers like The Land Institute and others investigate its breeding capabilities. (Don’t worry, we’re not talking GMO here, just good old fashioned plant breeding). And, in the spirit of past American ingredient introductions, maybe someday your kids will be eating lasagna made from nipa grain pasta.

Emily Majewski