Agriculture's next revolution -- perennial grain -- within sight

Jun 24, 2010

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, Washington State University (WSU) Regents professor of 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 , key features in less developed regions.

By contrast, annual grains can lose five times as much water as 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.

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User comments : 10

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Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Jun 24, 2010
another opportunity for third world anti-GM neo-Luddites to starve. It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it, better them than me.
marjon
4 / 5 (1) Jun 24, 2010
This is a great idea. I didn't see any indication it would require non-tradition GM.
Humans nave been genetically modify crops for thousands years.
Kev_C
not rated yet Jun 25, 2010
First point to note is that humans have NOT been genetically modifying plants or animals for thousands of years. Hybridisation is not the same as GM in any way shape or form.

Second point is that we need to consider the human population levels, the ecosystem services abilities to sustain this population and the current crop performance with input-output abilities fully considered. However I see no mention specifically about GM anywhere in the article.
As for 'another opportunity for third world anti-GM neo-Luddites to starve' sadly some people just don't know the truth because they are totally unwilling to even listen so I won't waste my breath.
Kev The Anti-GM Luddite. With scientific backing to boot.:-)
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Jun 25, 2010
Hybridisation is not the same as GM in any way shape or form.
Really? I doubt perennialization is being achieved via your "hybridisation".
damnfuct
not rated yet Jun 25, 2010
With nearly 7 billion people on the Earth and growing, a food shortage would quickly change the public opinion of GM foods.
anb
not rated yet Jun 26, 2010
Don't believe this hype. The industry could have introduced this long ago. One of Norman's favorites that got squashed. These ideas get troted out in the media to every new generation of young people. If the world only knew how much sandbagging science has been involved with over the 50 years.
otto1923
not rated yet Jun 26, 2010
So- how does this work... Do you harvest annually and the grain grows back? Or do you have to wait 3 yrs for maturity? Is this less food per acre?
Jimee
not rated yet Jun 27, 2010
This is a fantastic goal. To hear "two decades" (more) at this point is a bit frustrating, but at least we can hope for a better funded program and a lot of luck.
marjon
not rated yet Jun 28, 2010
Are there not a significant number of perennial grasses? The challenge would be to trick the grass to produce a seed that has more nutritional value.
Natives have been harvesting perennials like saguaros, prickly pear, palo verde, mesquite, etc.
"Probably can never expect as high yield as from an annual grain crops because larger part of a perennial plant's energy goes to root production to sustain the plant over winter"
http://www.primal...rain.htm
Djincs
not rated yet Jun 29, 2010
Really good idea. it is really silly to blame the tehnology and not what actually is the result of this proces. the important thing is what you have after changing the DNA not how you have done it. You can obtain new varieties trough changing the DNA of a plant and not to put new genes but still this can produse something harmfull, GM crops are tested for such thing and the crops derived trough changind the DNA in other ways(radiation ,mutagens) arent tested, it is more secure to eat GM in this case.
And the benefits are real it will be something like alfalfa, you plant it and use it for more than one year, this is really good for the soil, and the envirenment, but still the stupid critisists wont agree ant blame this- seeds of distruction, this is really funny.

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