Resilient grains could promote food security

Most of the world looks to either wheat or rice as the staff of life. Wheat has been in the news since the Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupted shipments from both countries. More broadly, though, both wheat and rice struggle to cope with a warming climate and less predictable rains. Could we do better with more resilient grains?

The recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s synthesis of climate impacts, its sixth such report, predicts that the risk of hunger will increase over time. The varied impacts of climate change could hamper the production of staple crops like rice, wheat, soybeans and corn, and the chance of simultaneous crop failures will rise, the report says.—NBC News, 2 June 2023.

Wheat and rice

Of the main staple crops, wheat is probably the most vulnerable to climate change. Studies show that the effects of climate change vary within and between countries. To some extent, technological advances in agriculture can offset the reductions in yield with increasing temperature. Also, warmer temperatures may change where to plant wheat. Increases in rainfall can increase crop yields, especially in dry climates, but too much rain is detrimental. The timing of the rain is also critical. Higher temperatures adversely affect rice production, too, while changes in rainfall have less effect.

The impact of climate change on grain crop production has both advantages and disadvantages. Nevertheless, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages… In recent years, the increased heat caused by climate change has been conducive to expanding the grain sown area and producing more grain. Increasing rainfall and CO2 concentrations are beneficial for crop production to some extent, but high temperatures may negate this effect in some areas. Similarly, climate change had a negative impact on grain production by expanding pest and disease occurrence areas, shortening crop growth cycles, and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events.—Zhang et al., 28 September 2022.

Beginning in the 1940s, “Green Revolution” research by Norman Borlaug sought to increase wheat yields to feed the world’s hungry. Borlaug noted that tall stalks of wheat couldn’t support much grain, so he bred a dwarf variety. Work at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines accomplished the same thing with rice. Yields of both grains increased dramatically, but they depended on artificial fertilizers and pesticides as well as access to water. That had consequences for the environment. And because of the cost of the inputs, the technology wasn’t available to the poorest farmers.


Millet, a resilient grain, is ready for harvest.
Resilient grains such as millet can promote food security as the climate changes. Shutterstock image.

The United Nations has declared 2023 the International Year of Millets. It seeks to call attention to its potential to promote sustainable development, as well as the need for research.

Millet is an ancient grain that grows primarily in Asia and Africa, although farmers in the Midwest are trying it out. Because of its drought resistance, it holds promise for promoting food security even with climate change. Although it has lower yields than wheat, it needs less fertilizer, is more resistant to insects and diseases, and has a shorter growing season. Different varieties are suited for wet or dry conditions.

Millet is gluten free, making it attractive to people who need or want to avoid gluten.

[The Green Revolution] focused all of that research on starchy staple crops—things that were good at filling people up but that weren’t really good at nourishing them. We left behind a lot of indigenous and traditional crops and traditional practices that were more nourishing. Millet and sorghum [a variety of millet] were, a long time ago, staple crops for many farmers and eaters in sub-Saharan Africa. But those were looked down upon. Because of Green Revolution practices, they were considered poor people’s food. These are the foods now of the future because they’re very nutritious. They’re high in protein and vitamins and micronutrients, and they’re resilient. A lot of the Green Revolution crops that were developed are not resilient.—Danielle Nierenberg, American Experience, 3 April 2020


Kernza, a distant cousin of wheat, is a perennial grain. Its deep roots extend 10 feet or more into the soil, stabilizing it. They also capture CO2 from the air, provide drought resistance, and hold nitrogen so it doesn’t run off and pollute the groundwater.

Compared to other crops being worked on at [The Land Institute]… we have fewer pest and disease problems and probably fewer than annual wheat, too. So, it’s easier on that front. The whole system can work: you can plant it, you can grow it, you can harvest it, you can eat it and it tastes good, and you can make stuff out of it. Everything works, it’s just the yield’s too low. Our primary near-term way to improve the yields is through management: figuring out the best way to grow it—spacing, timing, when to harvest or when to graze or mow it.—Lee DeHaan

At this stage it’s still a niche crop, with only about 4000 acres under production. Compared to wheat, which yields about 4000 pounds per acre, its yields of 500 pounds per acre are small.

If you want to try it, it’s available in flour, breakfast cereal, and pasta. Kernza has less gluten than wheat, but it’s not gluten-free, so it’s not suitable for those with celiac disease. It’s often mixed with wheat flour to make bread or pasta.


Fans of Ethiopian food will be familiar with teff in the form of injera, the sourdough flatbread you use to scoop up the spicy vegetable- and meat stews. Cultivated in the Horn of Africa for the last 4000 years, this annual grain is drought resistant. Farmers there have developed many varieties to suit local growing conditions. Of the resilient grains, teff is one of the most nutritious, with protein, calcium, vitamin B6, zinc, and fiber—but no gluten.

In the US, the main source of teff is the Snake River region of Idaho, where the hot, dry summers and the geology resemble those of Ethiopia.

Making resilient grains more productive

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, rivalry among the US, the Soviet Union, and China led to proxy wars around the globe. It also meant competition in everything from sport to the space race to agriculture.

Following the Communist Revolution in China, American policymakers were concerned that discontented peasants around the world might look to the Soviet Union for stability. Suddenly Borlaug’s work was viewed as a geopolitical tool: the Cold War could be won by fighting famine, since “no one becomes a Communist on a full belly.”—American Experience, 3 April 2020

But the main driving force for the Green Revolution was that traditional crops didn’t produce enough to feed everyone. So we can’t just go back to them; we need to make them more productive as well as sustainable. But because these crops haven’t been well researched, there’s a lot of potential for improvement with even modest investments in research.

Traditional agriculture

[W]e need to go forward by going back and looking at some of the traditional practices and then combine them with the knowledge that we now have and the technology that we now have. I think there’s a way to apply technology…whether we’re talking about small-scale farmers in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa or medium-scale farmers in the United States or large-scale farmers in Brazil. I think all of those types of farmers can learn from these high and low technologies, and creative ways to combine them that are sustainable for both people and the planet.—Danielle Nierenberg, American Experience, 3 April 2020

We’ve discussed previously what we can learn from traditional technology in building design and fire management. Similarly, traditional agricultural practices can help us grow more resilient grains.

One way to fertilize soil is with nitrogen-fixing plants. So farmers might rotate crops of teff with lentils, or intercrop kernza with alfalfa. These practices enrich the soil without contaminating groundwater. Intercropping is, of course, an ancient practice. The pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of Mexico grew corn, beans, and squash together. The corn grew tall, supporting the bean vines. The squash vines covered the ground, holding the soil in place. And the beans fixed nitrogen from the air in the soil, providing nourishment for the other crops.