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Coming Attractions

Perennial Crops

Kernza wheat (Thinopyrum intermedium) at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. The mature wheat will be tied into bundles and fed into a small combine for threshing.

Sometime after the last ice age, human beings began to cultivate annuals for food—the first being an early ancestor of wheat called emmer in the Fertile Crescent. 10,000 years ago rice was grown in Asia, and 9,000 years ago corn was domesticated in Mesoamerica. These three annuals became the staple crops of the world and remain so to this day.

Perennial grains and cereals would be a game-changer for soil, carbon, and cost. Perennial crops are the most effective way to sequester carbon in any agricultural system because they leave the soil intact. The difference between annuals and perennials is that annuals die back every year, roots and all, and regenerate solely through seeds. Perennials die back too, but not the roots, which produce new growth.

Researchers are pursuing grain, cereal, and oilseed plants that are perennial food providers. Two successful efforts to breed perennial staple crops have emerged. The Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences in China focuses on rice. The Land Institute in Kansas has been attempting to breed perennial wheat for more than forty years, and may have it in a variety called Kernza. They may ultimately make it possible to farm without disturbing the soil.

Technical summaries for each solution will be available May 1, 2017.

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