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Perennial grains could be biggest agricultural innovation in eons

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June 29, 2010

A just-published paper suggests that the cultivation of perennial grain crops could revolu...

A just-published paper suggests that the cultivation of perennial grain crops could revolutionize agriculture

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It has pretty much become a given that grain crops, such as wheat and barley, need to be started from scratch every spring. This means farmers must buy seeds, use seeding equipment to get those seeds into the soil, then apply a lot of fertilizer and hope for weather conditions that won’t be too hot, cold, wet or dry for germination. There are such things as perennial grains, however - plants that, like the grass in your lawn, simply pick up in the spring where they left off in the fall. While perennial versions of common annual grains have seen little in the way of development, a new research paper says it’s about time they did. The advantages of cultivating perennial grains, the paper’s authors submit, could be one of the biggest advances in the 10,000-year history of agriculture.

The paper, “Increased Food and Ecosystem Security via Perennial Grains,” points out that perennials have longer growing seasons and longer, denser roots than annuals. Those longer roots, which can reach down 10 to 12 feet, allow the crops to reach and hold more water and nutrients, reduce erosion, and condition the soil. Because the plants grow for a greater length of time, they also sequester more carbon from the atmosphere.

A diagram from the paper, illustrating the relative advantages of perennial grain crops

Annual crops, by contrast, are said to lose five times as much water as perennials, and 35 times as much nitrate - a plant nutrient that regularly leaches out of fields and pollutes waterways. Needless to say, annual crops also involve the rearing, transportation, purchase and sowing of seeds every year, which leaves definite carbon, chemical and financial footprints.

So, when might we start seeing perennial versions of annual grains? Perhaps within two decades, according to the researchers, although maybe sooner if more resources are invested in their development. "It really depends on the breakthroughs," said Washington State University soil scientist John Reganold, a lead author of the paper. "The more people involved in this, the more it cuts down the time."

Published in the latest issue of Science, the paper was a collaborative effort of over 24 authors, most of those plant breeders or geneticists.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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5 Comments

Why not Rice too! Can we cross rice with bamboo as both belong to the same family.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Anumakonda Jagadeesh
29th June, 2010 @ 05:52 pm PDT

Sorry, but Monsanto says NO! It was a great idea though.

Samuel Cheney
29th June, 2010 @ 07:39 pm PDT

Monsanto and the other (are there other?) seed companies will most likely do everything in their power to prevent research and development of such a crop from ever progressing. How can they sell seeds every year otherwise?

Alex Angel
30th June, 2010 @ 05:46 am PDT

Gitmag has lots of fascinating innovations.

A Periennal Grain is phenomenol for the environment, as well as, the grower/farmer.

Facebook User
1st July, 2010 @ 04:58 am PDT

This would be great solution for deforestation, an option actually. I'm sure some giants will kill for this to be killed!:) Sad but true!

Facebook User
12th July, 2010 @ 05:59 am PDT
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