Within a generation scientists are aiming to have perennial crops supplying our food chain. Not only will this reduce the costs of farming, it will also bring huge environmental benefits.
Currently most food crops work on an annual cycle. New crops only come about by planting new seed. Up until now farmers have selected annual wheat for domestication because of its high grain yield. As a result the plant sacrificed other attributes to maximize the amount of seed.
The latest breeding programmes to find the magical perennial crop have been under way for some time, for ten years in the case of Washington State University. They hope to have a wheat breed that survives for up to five years. They and others are also looking at all the other crops ranging through sunflowers, sorghum to chickpeas.
Washington State University uses old-fashioned breeding techniques, such as crossing wheat with wild grass but, not genetic modification. This takes time and therefore means it will probably be the next generation that benefits.
Hugh benefits are foreseen. There is an urgency to this research that is driven by a number of factors, climate change and soil erosion being two of them. Once a crop stays in the ground there is less soil erosion because land isn’t lying fallow, with the winds whipping off the top soil. Perennials have larger roots which search out water deeper in the ground making them better crops for surviving the higher temperatures that come with climate change. On top of all this, with less plowing and planting, savings on fuel bills are estimated to be as high as 75%.
Perennial crops; think it, like it, want it. Because the world is going to need them. Let’s hope this approach to crop management adds up!