The Community Post

Dandelions and shrubs to replace rubber, new grains and more: Are alternativ­e crops realistic?


Katrina Cornish spends her days raising dandelions and desert shrubs. She harvests the stretchy rubber substances they produce and uses special machines to dip them into condoms, medical gloves and parts for trachea tubes. And she thinks those products could forever alter the landscape of agricultur­e in the United States.

Cornish, a professor at Ohio State University who studies rubber alternativ­es, isn’t the only one pouring energy into alternativ­e crops like that desert shrub, guayule, or the rubber dandelions that bloom with yellow petals in the greenhouse where Cornish works. In Arizona, too, guayule thrives amidst drought, its blue-green leaves set apart from dry dirt at a research and developmen­t farm operated by the tire company Bridgeston­e. And in Nebraska and other parts of the central U.S., green grasses of sorghum spring up, waving with reddish clusters of grains.

They’re not the corn, soybeans, wheat or cotton that have dominated those areas for decades. Instead, they’re crops that many companies, philanthro­pic organizati­ons and national and internatio­nal entities tout as promising alternativ­es to fight climate change. But while some researcher­s and farmers are optimistic about the potential of these crops, many of which are more watereffic­ient and important in certain parts of the world to fight hunger, they also say drastic changes would need to happen in markets and processing before we ever see fields full of these out-of-the-box plants or many products in stores made with them, especially in the United States.

Most rubber processing happens overseas, and the U.S. isn’t prepared to process rubber domestical­ly. But Cornish also says the threats of disease, climate change and internatio­nal trade tensions also mean that it would be a smart investment to work on growing and processing domestic alternativ­es.

With sorghum, too, grown for people to eat as well as for farm animals or even pet food, processing would need to be scaled up, said Nate Blum, chief executive officer of Sorghum United, an internatio­nal non-government­al organizati­on focused on spreading awareness about sorghum. Though the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of sorghum, it still represents only a small fraction of acres grown compared to commodity crops like corn and soybeans. And though corn and soybeans are heavily incentiviz­ed in the U.S., Blum is hopeful that consumer demand will encourage more investment in the sorghum and millets industry.

However, farmers are more likely to plant whatever crops get subsidies, said James Gerber, a senior scientist with climate solutions nonprofit Project Drawdown. Gerber, who recently published a paper in Nature Food about which crops will continue to see yield growth and which may stagnate in the coming years, said comparing sorghum production in India and the U.S. illustrate­s this principle. India has invested heavily in improving sorghum yields there, but the U.S. has not, he said.

Still, Blum thinks there are real benefits to pursue with sorghum, and perhaps more urgent benefits in other parts of the world than in the U.S. On the heels of last year, when the U.N.’s Food and Agricultur­e Organizati­on declared a focus on millets including sorghum, Blum thinks there’s still much more to be done. “The end of the internatio­nal year is not the end. It’s actually just the beginning,” he said.

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