Perennials as a tool to combat climate change

As we watched the first snow of the year quickly melt away on a balmy 40 degree December day here in Michigan, you might be filled with the urge to reminisce about the winters of your younger years.  “I remember when I went trick-or-treating in a snow storm at the end of October!” Or, “I remember there was always snow on the ground for the opening day of gun season!”  The climate is changing and here in the Upper Midwest a delay in the first familiar snowfall  is one result of this, others include drought and flood.  Parts of the state of Michigan were declared to be in a state of drought this past summer, having detrimental effects on yields of certain crops. States around the country share similar sentiments. As climate change continues to threaten agriculture nationally and globally, scientists have identified farming practices that might lessen the blow of these extreme weather events, allowing the farmer to better adapt to the changes. A conversion of annual crops to perennials, which more closely align with natural systems, has been recognized and discussed as one possible solution to climate change not only in scientific journals, but also in the popular press. Perennial grains, particularly Kernza, have been gaining a lot of attention recently.

The article “How farmers can get to the root of climate response – literally” published by Christian Science Monitor includes comments from  researcher Jerry Glover of USAID, Matthew Ryan from Cornell University, and Timothy Crews from the Land Institute about how perennials reduce soil erosion during extreme weather events and sequester carbon. Moreover, National Public Radio published an article featuring Kernza, as several other articles have recently, as a sustainable crop to face climate change.  Comments from bakers, brewers and others in the food industry indicate that there is a demand for Kernza.  Rapid advancements are being made in developing Kernza into a crop that may be adopted by farmers, but it is still a work in progress.  Nonetheless we are excited to see the potential of this grain recognized in popular news articles!

Traits for perennial wheat adaptation in Australia

Author: Len J. Wade
 November 2010
Abstract: Interest is increasing worldwide in developing perennial crops to improve sustainability of mixed-farming systems. Perennial wheat has prospects in Australia to contribute to both grazing and grain production, especially by providing timely autumn grazing to relieve pressure on other forages. Amphiploids from crosses between various wheats and perennial grasses have been imported into Australia for initial evaluation, and crosses between adapted Australian wheats and Australian native perennial grasses are proposed. Initial efforts have demonstrated that some imported amphiploids have a capacity to perenniate in the field with adequate water, but questions remain concerning appropriate phenology for a perennial wheat ideotype, and its capacity to tolerate the extremes of the Australian environment, especially the hot dry summer conditions encountered in southern Australia. This paper reviews trait requirements for successful perenniation, growth and performance of perennial wheat in contrasting environments, from north America to Australia, but especially from northern Australia (summer-dominant rainfall, heavy-textured soils) and south-western Australia (winter-dominant rainfall, light-textured soils), to south-eastern Australia (with a little summer rain and deep soils, but the likelihood of very hot-dry summers overall). The review concludes that appropriate phenology and summer dormancy will be desirable to escape exposure to summer drought, with avoidance and tolerance traits assisting plant performance and perenniation in different zones.


Crop and Pasture Science 61(9) 679–690

Evaluation of perennial wheat germplasm in an Australian environment

Author: Matthew Newell, Philip Larkin, Richard Hayes and Mark Norton
Date: November 2010
Abstract:  There is interest in developing cereal plants with a perennial habit because of potential advantages in production stability and environmental sustainability. Breeding programs in the northern hemisphere have produced perennial wheats by crossing annual bread wheat lines (Triticum aestivum) with perennial wheatgrasses (Thinopyrum spp.). This study evaluated the performance of 67 of these hybrid derivatives in Australia compared to the annual winter wheat cv. EGA Wedgetail. The experiment was conducted at Cowra in the mixed cropping zone of NSW. All hybrid derivatives were significantly later in their maturity than cv. EGA Wedgetail (mean 123 days after sowing to flowering)(> 0.05), with 18 of the imported lines yielding as well or better than the control (mean 136.7 g/m row). Most lines containing Th. intermedium or Th. ponticum in their pedigree were highly resistant to wheat streak mosaic virus and most proved very resistant to stripe and leaf rust. Good resistance to current Australian races of stem rust was rare within the germplasm. Nine entries regrew and produced grain in the second season. These lines tended to be lower yielding in the first year. Although potential exists, ongoing research is required to strengthen perenniality, ensuring survival through the harsh Australian summers and guaranteeing adequate grain yields. Significantly, this germplasm is proving a rich resource of disease resistance.