Perennial Grain—Biggest Agriculture Breakthrough in 10,000 Years

PULLMAN, Wash. –Earth-friendly perennial grain crops, which grow with less fertilizer, herbicide, fuel, and erosion than grains planted annually, could be available in two decades, according to researchers writing in the current issue of the journal Science.

Perennial grains would be one of the largest innovations in the 10,000 year history of agriculture, and could arrive even sooner with the right breeding programs, said John Reganold, a Washington State University Regents professor of soil science and lead author of the paper with Jerry Glover, a WSU-trained soil scientist now at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

“It really depends on the breakthroughs,” said Reganold. “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,” said Reganold. “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 ten 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,” said Reganold.

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.

Source: http://researchnews.wsu.edu/physical/328.html 

Watch video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPpjGV3kvnw&lr=1

Michigan State works to advance perennial wheat

Michigan State – with the $1 million grant that it has recently won is joining the well-know Washington State University and The Land Institute to create a line perennial grains. Success at Michigan State and these other institutions has been resonating with farmers to save them time, money and resources. 

Author: James Prichard, Associate Press
Date: September 2009

As Steve Culman squatted in the southwestern Michigan farm field, he used his left hand to gently clasp several dead wheat stalks still in the ground, then pointed with his right toward something remarkable near the bottom of them.

There were new sprouts of wheat, emerging shortly after the summer harvest.

Culman is a researcher at Michigan State University, which recently won a four-year $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to further the development of a new type of wheat that would help reduce soil erosion while saving growers money, time and labor.

Read the full story here. 

Perennial Wheat: A new option for organic and sustainable farm systems

Author: Sieglinde Snapp, Steve Culman, Lee DeHann, John Green, Stephen Jones, Janet Lewis, Vicki Morrone, Dan Rossman, Martin Nagelkirk, Scott Swinton, Sienna Tinsley, Anne Weir
Affiliation: 
Michigan State University, Michigan State University Extension, The Land Institute, and Washington State University
Abstract: A new perennial crop is being explored for opportunities on organic and sustainable farms. The overall goal to grow this crop is to improve farms and protect the environment (Glover et al., 2010). Successful establishments crop requires it to be replanted only once in three years (see figure below). As a perennial crop, it provides greater soil coverage and an extensive rooting system, compared to an annual grain. These factors are the foundation for building soil in organic farming. The perennial wheat team integrates the work from plant breeders, economists, cropping systems scientists and ecologists with farmers and Extension educators to identify useful plant lines and management approaches with the greatest potential for success in a Upper Midwest organic farm systems. The team has set a goal to find stable varieties within five years, depending on plant regrowth and seed production. We are evaluating this crop for multiple uses including grain, forage and environmental services.
Source: pwheat.anr.msu.edu/upload_max_filesize=32m/2012/01/pwheat-extension-poster1.pdf

Perennial Grains in Washington

Affiliation: Washington State University
Abstract: This brief presentation notes some of the qualities and traits of perennial wheat grown research from Washington State University – compares yields and regrowth of annual versus perennials.
Source: http://pwheat.anr.msu.edu/upload_max_filesize=32m/2012/01/washington-perennial-wheat-study1.pdf