Earth-friendly perennial grain crops, which grow with less fertilizer, herbicide, fuel and erosion than grains planted annually, could be available in 2 decades, according to researchers writing in the current issue of the journal Science.
Perennial grains would be one of the largest innovations in the history of agriculture, and could arrive even sooner with the right breeding programs, says John Reganold, a Washington State University Regents professor of soil science and lead author of the paper with Jerry Glover, a Washington State University-trained soil scientist now at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan.
“It really depends on the breakthroughs,” Reganold says. “The more people involved in this, the more it cuts down the time.”
Published in Science’s influential policy forum, the paper is a call to action as half the world’s growing population lives off marginal land at risk of being degraded by annual grain production. Perennial grains, say the paper’s authors, expand farmers’ ability to sustain the ecological underpinnings of their crops.
“People talk about food security,” Reganold says. “That’s only half the issue. We need to talk about both food and ecosystem security.”
Perennial grains, say the authors, have longer growing seasons than annual crops and deeper roots that let the plants take greater advantage of precipitation. Their larger roots, which can reach 10 to 12 feet down, reduce erosion, build soil and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. They require fewer passes of farm equipment and less herbicide, key features in less-developed regions.
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.
“Developing perennial versions of our major grain crops would address many of the environmental limitations of annuals, while helping to feed an increasingly hungry planet,” Reganold says.
Perennial grain research is underway in Argentina, Australia, China, India, Sweden and the U.S.
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.