Perennial Potential

July 14, 2010 07:00 PM

Pam Smith
Alfalfa and grass growers know the advantages of perennial status, but imagine wheat, rice, corn and sorghum that might one day survive year to year.
Photo: Washington State University
Scientists at Washington State University (WSU) say perennials grains can be a more earth-friendly answer than grains planted annually. Writing in the journal Science, John Reganold, WSU soil scientist, estimates the breakthroughs are likely two decades away, maybe sooner with more research efforts and investment.
“People talk about food security,” says Reganold. “That’s only half the issue. We need to talk about both food and ecosystem security.”
Reganold, working with soil scientist Jerry Glover, The Land Institute (TLI), Salina, Ks., notes that while yields of major grain crops have doubled since the 1950’s, more than one in seven people still stuffer from malnutrition. It’s estimated that half the world’s population live off marginal lands at high risk of being degraded by annual grain production.
Perennial wheat research has been underway at WSU and TLI for more than a decade, led by Stephen Jones, director of WSU’s Mount Vernon Research Center, and Stan Cox, director of TLI’s plant breeding program. Perennial grain breeding programs have also been established in China, India, Australia, Argentina and Sweden.
Perennials tend to have longer growing season than annuals and deeper roots that let plants take greater advantage of available moisture and reduce the threat of erosion. Less inputs and more soil carbon are other advantages.
Intermediate wheatgrass is a perennial grass and a wild relative of annual wheat. It has been widely hybridized with annual wheat in efforts to transfer traits like disease resistance. Plant breeding programs are also working on domesticating it as a perennial grain crop.
Molecular markers associated with desirable traits and other plant breeding innovations should help accelerate the process. Large investments have already been committed to developing technologies for perennial crops destined for biofuels.
“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,” Reganold says.

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