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Crops of the Past--and the Future

For related articles and information, please visit OCA's Organic Transitions page.

Perennial agriculture isn’t limited to grains and a handful of vegetables—fruit orchards are the ultimate example of perennial agriculture. (shutterstock)

Perennials are growing all around us-in fields, forests, and grasslands. These plants regenerate themselves each year and survive through a hardy network of roots. Unfortunately, many farmers in the industrialized world rely on monocultures of annual crops that need to be planted from season to season and can place a heavy toll on soil, water sources, and biodiversity.

Sixty-nine percent of global croplands are composed of cereal, oilseed, and legumes-all crops that need to be planted annually.

But organizations like The Land Institute are asking why perennial crops aren't in modern farming. The Land Institute is aiming to reshape agriculture by creating perennial plant varieties that regenerate year after year-and have a range of environmental and nutritional benefits.

The United States currently loses 1.7 billion tons of topsoil a year. According to Wes Jackson, director of The Land Institute, "the plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword."

Developing perennial varieties of grains, legumes, and vegetables can help save precious soil. While plant ground cover prevents soil erosion, the main difference lies in the roots. Jerry Glover, agroecologist and Senior Sustainable Agriculture Advisor to the U.S. Agency for International Development, explains, "perennial roots go deep - some as deep as 10 feet - and they will sustain the plant for many years. Way down there, the roots can capture more groundwater. Those deep, better-established roots also help cycle nutrients in the soil and make them more available to plants."

Researchers at The Land Institute are currently working to develop perennial grain varieties that create substantial yields-and more resilient food systems. Perennial crops are developed either by selecting wild perennial plants with the best crop potential (domestication), or crossing annual grains with a related perennial species (hybridization). Varieties currently being developed include kernza (a wheat-wheatgrass hybrid), sorghum, sunflower, and wheat.

Sorghum, a food staple in some African countries, can account for up to 40 percent of African diets. According to Andrew Paterson, research professor and director of the University of Georgia Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory, developing a perennial sorghum crop would meet challenges of food security, climate change, and energy supply. By providing multiple harvests, the perennial crop would increase farmers' incomes and by preventing erosion, conserving nutrition, and providing ground cover the perennial sorghum would conserve African soils.   
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