/ April 22, 2011

Earth-friendly Innovation: Perennial Grains

Our Washington D.C. office is only two blocks away from the National Geographic Society Headquarters. This Earth Day got us thinking about an entry in their April magazine issue. The article by Robert Kunzig highlights the potential of perennial grains for global agriculture.

The 10,000 year history of human agriculture has focused almost exclusively on staple crops of annual grains. But there are also perennial varieties of wheat, rice, and other grains. Scientists are now trying to breed better strains of these perennials, to achieve what would be a major agricultural revolution.

The advantages of perennials are significant: they don’t die every year, they don’t require replanting, their long roots use water and nutrients more efficiently, and they prevent erosion. The current system of farming annuals requires churning up the soil year after year, and spreading tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides over new crops to induce their growth each season. Annuals require much more water too. Agriculture depletes our precious resources of soil and water, while contributing pollutants to the natural environment. There are more efficient ways of growing our food.

We salute the innovators who are thinking of agriculture in a completely new way: humans can harvest grains that don’t need replanting every year. For now, perennial varieties yield much less grain than their annual counterparts – which have been selectively bred over millennia. But with modern tools like DNA sequencing, scientists can make rapid progress towards increasing grain yields. A flour-producing, perennial wheat-wheatgrass hybrid has already been developed at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, where scientists like Jerry Glover and Wes Jackson have spent years promoting this new technology. Their efforts were covered in Science Daily this past June.

We love to see researchers challenge the way an industry traditionally operates, and focus on saving our resources. It sounds much smarter to us.

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