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Perennial grains could transform agriculture, save soils

By Ford Cochran

Soil scientist and 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer Jerry Glover hopes to keep America’s–and the rest of the world’s–amber waves of grain waving all year long. He spoke at last week’s Explorers Symposium on the effort to create perennial versions of the planet’s major grain crops, which could reduce water and nutrient runoff, protect farmland soils, and perhaps ultimately increase food yields.

Most of the grains grown for human consumption, such as wheat and maize, require new planting from seed each year. Perennials, by contrast, can survive for years without replanting. They produce deep root systems that tap water and nutrient reservoirs beyond the reach of their annual counterparts, and they don’t require annual tilling. Perennials thus help stabilize the ground on which they grow. Perennial plants dominate natural land ecosystems the world over, so replacing annual crop plants with perennials could help farms better mimic natural systems, with possible benefits such as increased resilience during times of unstable climate.
Glover spoke with me about his work at the Salinas, Kansas-based Land Institute, and about humanity’s growing need for perennial grains.

I’m working with a group of people to develop perennial versions of our major grain crops. Right now around the world we’re facing problems of food insecurity, meaning that there are too many people going hungry. We’re also facing the problems that agriculture causes to our landscapes.

Our natural ecosystems prior to agriculture featured perennial plant communities. These are plants like trees and shrubs and perennial grasses that come back each year. They survive for multiple years–some for less than a decade, some for thousands of years.

With agriculture, we’ve reversed that almost completely. Our agricultural systems primarily feature annual crops that die after harvest. That means farmers have to go and plant seed every year, prepare the soil, fertilize. That comes at a great cost to the landscape oftentimes in terms of soil erosion, inadequate management of water, loss of nutrients, and so forth.

So right at the time when there are more people on the planet then ever, more people going hungry then ever before, and our ecosystems on the verge of collapse around the world, we need to produce more food, because next month–July 2010–there will be seven billion people, and growing.

At the Land Institute, our focus is on developing perennial versions of the major grain crops so that our agricultural fields can function much more like our natural ecosystems did prior to the development and expansion of annual crops around the world.

We rely currently on annual grain crops to fuel our civilization. More than 70 percent of our food calories come from annual grain crops. Maize, rice, wheat–the three big ones–just those alone supply more than 60 percent of our food calories around the world.

A big difference between annuals and perennials is the fact that perennial plants such as intermediate wheat grass (a wild perennial relative of our annual crop wheat) doesn’t die once its seeds mature. We can harvest the seeds off of it, and it regrows and maintains an extensive network of dense, deep roots year-round. It’s a very elegant regulatory system that works on the scales of minutes and millimeters or less. So it’s finally managing nutrients, water, and so forth.

[The perennial wheat I’m holding] was excavated in June. At the same time, many of our crop fields in Kansas and the Great Plains are left bare because we’re just planting our annual crop seeds right now for soy beans, milo (grain sorghum), and so forth. The annual crop fields are left virtually unprotected from rain washing away our soil, but under perennials that soil’s protected year-round with deep roots ready to spring into action any time there’s adequate sunlight, available soil water, and available nutrients. They are our lifelines to the soil elements deep underground.
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The Emerging Explorers Program is supported by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation and PNY, a National Geographic Mission Partner for Exploration and Adventure.
Photo by Reza

Ford-Cochran.jpgFord Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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