A group of 29 scientists have published an article in the prestigious Science journal arguing for the development of perennial grain crops which have been described as potentially "the biggest agricultural revolution for 10,000 years".
Currently, most grain grown around the world has to be replanted after every crop. 70% of all cropland is used for annual cereals, oilseeds and legumes. Thia consumes a lot of resources and is hard on the land.
The scientists argue that perennial grain, in addition to not needing replanting – saving farm machinery passing over and compacting the ground and reducing fuel consumption – would have a much deeper and more powerful root system than annuals. This would mean that it used water much more efficiently.
Other benefits of a deep perennial root system would be less erosion and better carbon sequestration. Perhaps most importantly, such a field might need as little as 3% of the fertiliser required by annuals. Not only are nitrate fertilizers energy-intensive to make, they are also prone to washing out of fields to pollute water supplies, kill habitats and cause other ecologcal damage.
Perennial fields would also require much less herbicide for control weeds.
At present, no perennial grains are capable of matching the productivity of annuals but the scientists argue that they can be bred – it is purely a matter of putting the necessary resources into research. They argue that, with enough development resources, perennial grain could be available in less than 20 years. In their view, this would be as great a step forward in food production as the original shift by the human race out of hunter-gathering and into farming some 10,000 years ago.
One barrier to obtaining this funding is the much lower revenue potential for major agricultural companies, who might otherwise be expected to fund the development of such crops, because there would be no need for new seed each year as well as reduced need chemical fertilizers and herbicides.