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Researchers Say Perennial Grain Crops Could Be Available in Two Decades, Call for Policy Commitment Similar to That Supporting Biofuels

Perennial grain crops—which would grow with less fertilizer, herbicide, fuel, and erosion than grains planted annually—could be available in two decades, according to researchers writing in the 25 June issue of the journal Science.

The authors say research into perennial grains can be accelerated by putting more personnel, land and technology into breeding programs. They call for a commitment similar to that underway for biologically based alternative fuels.

Perennial grains would be one of the largest innovations in the 10,000 year history of agriculture, and could arrive even sooner with the right breeding programs, said John Reganold, a Washington State University Regents professor of soil science and lead author of the paper with Jerry Glover, a WSU-trained soil scientist now at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

It really depends on the breakthroughs. The more people involved in this, the more it cuts down the time.

—John Reganold

The paper in Science is a call to action as half the world’s growing population lives off marginal land at risk of being degraded by annual grain production. Perennial grains, say the paper’s authors, expand farmers’ ability to sustain the ecological underpinnings of their crops.

“People talk about food security. That’s only half the issue. We need to talk about both food and ecosystem security. ”
—John Reganold

Perennial grains, say the authors, have longer growing seasons than annual crops and deeper roots that let the plants take greater advantage of precipitation. Their larger roots, which can reach ten to 12 feet down, reduce erosion, build soil and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. They require fewer passes of farm equipment and less herbicide, key features in less developed regions.

By contrast, annual grains can lose five times as much water as perennial crops and 35 times as much nitrate, a valuable plant nutrient that can migrate from fields to pollute drinking water and create dead zones in surface waters.

Perennial grain research is underway in Argentina, Australia, China, India, Sweden and the United States. Washington State University has more than a decade of work on perennial wheat led by Stephen Jones, director WSU’s Mount Vernon Research Center. Jones is also a contributor to the Science paper, which has more than two dozen authors, mostly plant breeders and geneticists.


  • J. D. Glover et al. (2010) Increased Food and Ecosystem Security via Perennial Grains. Science 328: 1638-1639 doi: 10.1126/science.1188761


Stan Peterson

There are very few technological advances that hold the promise of revolutionary changes in the life on Mankind.

This is is potentially one such. But it definitely does not sound imminent.


one way is to convert classical grains into perrenials. I suppose you have to change many features of the plant. another way is to change perrenials into producing grains, which may be easier. Something like expressing the genes for corn or wheat in switchgrass or bamboo.
Anyway, this would be truly revolutionary and have an immense impact on soil erosion and produtivity. Increasing agricultural production per acre and protecting against soil degradation is the most important ecological measure to preserve biodiversity. Almost all loss of ecosystems is because of agricultural activities ; at places where there is spare-land (because of increased productivity like in Europe or the US), there is restoration of lost ecosystems.

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