Columnist, Food

Morning Glory Baked Oatmeal. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

I’m supertired of superfoods. And it’s not just because I really don’t want to drink chaga tea. It’s because the game of finding some nutrient in some food and making wildly improbable assertions about the consequent effect on human health is a clicky gimmick by which unscrupulous marketers and audience-hungry media prey on credulous consumers.

Except when I do it. (Although I’m as audience-hungry as the next columnist, I think my record of click-resistant topics — like, say, crop-neutral insurance — should allay your suspicions on that front.)

Seems to me that, to be a superfood, a food’s got to deliver more than nutrients. It has to be cheap, versatile, good-tasting, not too onerous to prepare and not so perishable that you end up tossing it.

It also has to perform on the environmental front. It has to be able to play in the kind of responsible, productive agricultural system we’re going to need if we expect to feed almost 10 billion people by 2050.

That’s a long list and a tall order. And it is met by one of the most prosaic of foods: oats.

I’d go so far as to say we should all be eating oatmeal for breakfast, pretty much every day. Buy the big canister of rolled oats, which makes 30 servings and is often on sale at my local market for about $3 — which means oatmeal is 10 cents a bowl. You can get the steel-cut kind if you prefer; they’re nutritionally similar, but they cost more and take longer to cook.

Oats are shelf staple and feed you cheaply and nutritiously. (Anthony Boulton/iStockphoto)

There are other oat-based products, of course. If you don’t want to turn whole oats into breakfast, you can let General Mills do it for you in the form of Cheerios. It’ll cost you, of course, and you lose some nutritional value, but your toddler will probably thank you. Then there are cookies. Muesli. Granola. Bread.

Oats check all the boxes. They’ll feed you cheaply and nutritiously. They have a long shelf life, and, with just a modicum of effort, they taste good.

But there’s another dimension to oats, and it might matter even more than your cheap, nutritious breakfast. Oats have an important job in fixing what ails our agricultural system. Just about everyone who works in agriculture says they believe that our current system, based disproportionately on corn and soy, would work better if we grew a more diverse suite of crops.

I know that oatmeal cookies are more compelling than crop rotations, but, in the long run, more good can come of the rotations.

Tim Griffin, director of the agriculture, food and environment program at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, spelled out the good, starting with productivity: “For each crop in the rotation, you’re better off growing them following something other than themselves.” A recent paper put a number on the yield penalty farmers pay for following corn with corn (4.3 percent) or soy with soy (10.3 percent). Rotations also help control pests and disease, because insects and pathogens that attack corn will pack up and move along when they find a field planted with soy (and vice versa).

And then there’s soil health. Griffin cautions against making too many soil health claims for rotations: “Different rotations result in different microbial communities, but we don’t know how to interpret it.” But if one of your rotations is a legume (soybeans or alfalfa), that crop will increase your soil’s nitrogen content. If you add in a cover crop, your soil benefits from not being left bare.

A farmer rakes oats in a field on Route 18 in New Wilmington, Pa. (Lindsay J. Westley)

The biggest bang for the rotation buck comes when you go from one crop to two, but yields also generally increase when more are added in. A recent experiment at Iowa State found that a three- or four-crop rotation (corn and soy plus oats, or oats and alfalfa), including a cover crop, increased corn yields 2 to 4 percent and soy 10 to 17 percent over the two-crop rotation.

These benefits are well-known and noncontroversial. So why do corn and soy dominate the farm landscape, particularly in the Midwest? Like everything in farming, the full answer is complex and nuanced. But the overriding reason is straightforward: Farmers gotta survive.

I asked a passel of farmers about barriers to including another crop — like, say, that newest superfood — into a standard corn/soy rotation (although wheat is the most commonly planted third crop in those rotations). The answers were all about markets. It was Patti Edwardson, an Iowa farmer, who first talked to me about the difficulty with oats. She’s trying different strategies to improve her farm’s soil, including shifting to an organic system and increasing crop diversity. “The real problem is the price anyone (whether she is a miller, processor or neighbor who has horses) pays for the grain,” she said in an email. If you can’t make money growing oats, you just can’t grow oats.

Even if you can make money, that money has to be competitive with what you can make planting corn or soy. At average Iowa yields and prices current, an acre of corn would gross $804 and an acre of soy, $587. Oats? $183. (Expenses aren’t the same, but they don’t come anywhere close to making up the difference.)

There are other economic barriers as well. The crop may require equipment you don’t have. The buyer may be too far away. You can’t make money unless you sell the grain (whether it’s oats or wheat) and the straw, but you want to leave the straw to break down on your land.

Corean’s Oatmeal Cookies. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

We can talk till the cows come home about why markets make it so hard for farmers to incorporate other crops (summary: it’s complicated), but how do we fix it? Certainly, there are policy options that can provide incentives for farmers to opt for the less profitable crop in order to get environmental benefits; I’m a big fan of finding ways to align subsidies with strategies to boost soil health, increase biodiversity and reduce pollution.

Okay, policy changes that boost environmental health look like a tough sell in this political environment. Still, says Suzy Friedman, senior director for agricultural sustainability at the Environmental Defense Fund, “We can’t just say to farmers, ‘Go figure it out.’ ” These are benefits that accrue to all of us, and costs need to be shared. She emphasizes supply chain changes, where food companies and agribusinesses coordinate on initiatives to create a market for crops grown according to a set of environmental standards.

But it’s tough for any initiative to create a market for crops that people (or cars, or pigs) don’t eat. And if we don’t change that, there’s a serious limit to the kinds of changes we’ll get on the ground. The biggest improvements will probably come from policies that tackle those cars and pigs, but, while we wait, consumers can make a small improvement every morning at breakfast. Right now, we grow a little less than 3 million acres of oats in the United States. (Canada, which we import from, grows another 3 million.) If we all decided to eat oatmeal every morning — a big increase from the approximately 6 percent of us who do now — we could triple the market for U.S. oats. That could raise the price, of course, but there’s some wiggle room when it costs just 10 cents a bowl. It’s that potential to help reshape the landscape that ices oats’ superfood status.

So much of the conversation about agriculture is what farmers ought to do, prescriptions that come easy to us armchair critics. But talk is cheap. Luckily, so is oatmeal.