Perennial Grains Emerging

This will be long time coming but it reminds us that our own tool kit of plants and seeds have been advanced to present productivity levels over centuries through luck and clever breeding.  We know that the path for perennials must be long.

Yet this reminds us that success is actually possible.  Fields of perennial wheat in the western grain fields solve a whole litany of problems.  The original cover was perennial and sported a root system that did go to fifteen feet.  That is why so much top soil disappeared over the last century.

If we can achieve similar yields which actually should be quite possible inasmuch the plant itself must be far more robust and naturally vigorous since its root system is already well established.  It is just that prior to this and similar work, no one has thought to better the wild wheat version.

JUNE 25, 2010

* perennial grain do not need to be replanted every year, which saves on fuel, labor and costs
* Their larger roots, which can reach 10 to 12 feet, reduce erosion, build soil and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
* They require fewer passes of farm equipment and less herbicide
* By contrast, annual grains can lose five times as much water as perennial crops and 35 times as much nitrate, a valuable plant nutrient that can migrate from fields to pollute drinking water and create “dead zones” in surface waters

Despite doubling of yields of major grain crops since the 1950s, more than one in seven people suffer from malnutrition. Global population is growing; demand for food, especially meat, is increasing; much land most suitable for annual crops is already in use; and production of nonfood goods (e.g., biofuels) increasingly competes with food production for land. The best lands have soils at low or moderate risk of degradation under annual grain production but make up only 12.6% of global land area (16.5 million km^2). Supporting more than 50% of world population is another 43.7 million km^2 of marginal lands (33.5% of global land area), at high risk of degradation under annual grain production but otherwise capable of producing crops. Global food security depends on annual grains—cereals, oilseeds, and legumes—planted on almost 70% of croplands, which combined supply a similar portion of human calories. Annual grain production, though, often compromises essential ecosystem services, pushing some beyond sustainable boundaries. To ensure food and ecosystem security, farmers need more options to produce grains under different, generally less favorable circumstances than those under which increases in food security were achieved this past century.

Development of perennial versions of important grain crops could expand options.


Perennial grain research is underway in Argentina, Australia, China, India, Sweden and the United States. Washington State University has more than a decade of work on perennial wheat led by Stephen Jones, director WSU’s Mount Vernon Research Center.

 Jones is also a contributor to the Science paper, which has more than two dozen authors, mostly plant breeders and geneticists.

The authors say research into perennial grains can be accelerated by putting more personnel, land and technology into breeding programs. They call for a commitment similar to that underway for biologically based alternative fuels.


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