Study shows how mixed crops can thrive where others fail

Most people see a field full of plants when they think of a grain harvest. A new study, however, demonstrates that grain mixes are both more robust and yielding than their standard equivalents.

To be clear, we’re not talking about growing various crops, such as wheat and rye, in distinct rows inside a field.

Instead, we’re talking about maslins, which are plants in which the seeds of two (or more) grains are mingled together and sowed. The end result is a harvest made up of many plant species blended together. They are collected, processed, and even ground together to make multigrain flour.

Maslin plants, according to Cornell University scientists, have been present for over 3,000 years. And, while they are still used in nations such as Eritrea, India, Georgia, Greece, Sudan, and Ethiopia, they are mostly unknown in the rest of the globe, owing to the food industry’s preference for a homogenous product that can be processed in a regular, predictable manner.

Nikoloz Lomsadze, senior pastor of a church in Georgia’s east, surveys his mixed barley and wheat field.

New York Botanical Garden/Alex McAlvay

So, what makes Maslins so special?

The Cornell team points out that even if weather, pests, or other circumstances harm one type of grain in such a crop, the other type will most likely do better. This implies that farmers will still have a harvestable crop at the conclusion of the growing season, although one with a relatively small amount of one grain and a bigger amount of the other.

This ratio will also be present in the remaining grains used to plant the crop the following year. This component enables the maslin to evolve quickly by continually altering the grain proportions to fit the growth environment. As long as changes in these parameters follow a consistent trend from year to year, the Maslin ratio should be adjusted for the future growing season.

As an extra plus, because the grains in each Maslin crop differ in physical characteristics like as height and rooting depth, surrounding plants of various species compete less directly for resources such as soil moisture and nutrients. As a result, they are thought to develop faster than if they were exclusively sown with seeds of their own species.

Indeed, the researchers discovered that maslin created from Eritrean wheat and barley produced 20% more wheat and 11% more barley than crops comprising solely wheat and barley.

Ethiopia is cultivating a wheat and barley hybrid crop.

New York Botanical Garden/Alex McAlvay

“For thousands upon thousands of years, subsistence farmers around the world have been managing and mitigating risk on their farms, and have developed these locally adapted strategies to do so,” said study lead author Alex McAlvay, a former Cornell postdoctoral fellow who is now a researcher at the New York Botanical Garden. “We can learn a lot from them, especially now that we’re dealing with climate change.”

An article on the research was published in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development, which was created by Cornell grad Morgan Ruelle while investigating agricultural techniques in Ethiopia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *