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.


Watch video on YouTube:

World Changing Ideas – Crops that don’t need replanting

Date: 2011, Scientific American
Abstract: 10 new technologies that will make a difference (see p. 47).


“Before agriculture, most of the planet was covered with plants that lived year after year. These perennials were gradually replaced by food crops that have to be replanted every year. Now scientists are contemplating reversing this shift by creating perennial versions of familiar crops such as corn and wheat. If they are successful, yields on farmland in some of the world’s most desperately poor places
could soar. The plants might also soak up some of the excess carbon in the earth’s

Agricultural scientists have dreamed of replacing annuals with equivalent perennials for decades, but the genetic technology needed to make it happen has appeared only in the past 10 or 15 years, says agroecologist Jerry Glover. Perennials
have numerous advantages over crops that must be replanted every year: their deep
roots prevent erosion, which helps soil hold onto critical minerals such as phosphorus, and they require less fertilizer and water than annuals do. Whereas conventionally grown monocrops are a source of atmospheric carbon, land planted with perennials does not require tilling, turning it into a carbon sink.”



Increased Food and Ecosystem Security via Perennial Grains

Author: Jerry D. Glover et al
Source: Science 25 June 2010: Vol. 328 no. 5986 pp. 1638-1639

“Perennial grains hold promise, especially for marginal landscapes or with limited resources where annual versions struggle.”

Click here to read Summary

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Future Farming: A Return to Roots?

Abstract: Modern agriculture’s intensive land use quashes natural biodiversity and ecosystems. Meanwhile the population will balloon to between eight billion and 10 billion in the coming decades, requiring that more acres be cultivated. Replacing single-season crops with perennials would create large root systems capable of preserving the soil and would allow cultivation in areas currently considered marginal. The challenge is monumental, but if plant scientists succeed, the achievement would rival humanity’s original domestication of food crops over the past 10 millennia—and be just as revolutionary.

Author: Jerry D. Glover, Cindy M. Cox and John P. Reganold

Date: 2007, Scientific American, Inc.

Click here to read full article. 

This American Land, episode 108

Check out this YouTube Video from the “This American Land” channel that talks about perennial crops and their implications. Thanks to Jerry Glover for sharing this link. The portion on perennial grains begins at 6:45, and goes until 12:02.


Perennial Grains Food Security for the Future

Author: Jerry D. Glover and John P. Reganold
Date: 2009, Issues in Science and Technology
Affiliation: The Land Institute and Washington State University
Abstract: Adding perennial grains to our agricultural arsenal will give farmers more choices in what they can grow and where, while sustainably producing food for the growing population.