Nature and Environment

Because at 160,000 years, the party is just getting started.

Add to My MSN

The Emergence of Perennial Wheat

3/20/2014 8:59:00 AM

Tags: perennial wheat, gluten intolerance, grasses, Stan Cox, Kansas

wheat roots

I have recently written about wheat’s many excellent properties, both as a crop and as a food. (See the April-May and February-March issues of Mother Earth News and my blog posts on the “Great Gluten Panic” and wheat diseases.) Now it’s time to reverse field and mention wheat’s biggest deficiency: it’s an annual plant.

The world's natural landscapes are covered mostly by perennial plants growing in long-lived mixed stands, whereas more than two-thirds of global cropland is sown to monocultures of annual crops that require soil disturbance and re-sowing every year (with wheat prominent among the latter). The conversion from perennial to annual plant cover has dramatically altered the soil’s ecological health. Perennial plants are highly efficient and responsive micromanagers of soil, nutrients, and water, while annual crops such as wheat are not.

With shorter growing seasons and ephemeral, often small root systems, annuals provide less protection against soil erosion, waste water and nutrients, and store less carbon in the soil. In a field experiment in Missouri encompassing 100 years of data collection, perennial crops were more than fifty times more effective than annual crops in maintaining topsoil.

So-called “no-till” methods (in which annual crops are farmed with little or no tillage) reduce soil loss but require heavy chemical inputs and can actually increase nitrate pollution of water resources. (Nitrogen losses from annual crops may be 30 to 50 times higher than those from perennial crops.) Meanwhile, organic farming with wheat or other annuals addresses the problem of chemical contamination, but usually requires as much or more soil-wrecking tillage than does conventional agriculture. And the inadequate root systems of annual species handle water and nutrients inefficiently even when crops are grown organically.

Given these problems, interest in breeding a perennial version of wheat is once again on the rise. Hybrids between wheat and related grass species, once sown, can re-emerge each season without further sowing, as do pasture grasses. The idea dates back to the early twentieth century, when breeders found that they could do in their nurseries something that nature had done many times during the evolution of wheat and its many relatives: hybridize different species and double the chromosome number of the hybrid to produce what is in effect a new, fertile species.

This is a process similar to the one through which the highly successful feed- and food-grain called triticale was developed. But triticale, like its parents durum wheat and rye, is annual and must start from seed each year. In contrast, hybridization of an annual wheat variety with perennial grasses belonging to the related genus Thinopyrum (no GMOs needed!) can produce perennial plants. They have wheat's grain-producing ability along with the perenniality that's characteristic of Thinopyrum. And growing perennial wheat would help reduce soil erosion, maintain soil cover, and cut back on fossil-fuel and chemical inputs.

A few perennial wheats were developed in the past, including a grain-forage type called ‘MT-2’ released by Montana State University in the 1980s. Washington State University has worked on perennial wheat since the 1990s, as has The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (TLI, where I work as a perennial sorghum breeder) since 2001. But perennial wheats developed to date have had problems with sparse seed-set, low productivity, and spotty post-harvest survival. Populations currently in experimental plots are much better than the older ones but still not farm-ready, and more breeding will be required. TLI's perennial wheat breeder/geneticist, Shuwen Wang, says his goal is to identify perennial plants that have the right balance between numbers of chromosomes from the annual and perennial parents, then interpollinate such plants and select perennial, genetically stable plants with better seed production. Stay tuned.

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013).

Related Content

Planning a Perennial Shade Garden, Part 2: Unique Shade Perennials

Some unique plants that will grow wonderfully in your perennial shade garden.

Living Remotely in a Mountain Community

How to cope mentally with living in a remote location.

Coösauke Kale

The process of saving seed for next year begins while the growing season is still going strong

Is Livestock Grazing Good for the Soil?

It's true, under the right circumstances, livestock grazing does help build healthy soil. Here's how...

Content Tools

Post a comment below.


4/7/2014 8:03:22 PM
Let's not stop at wheat, but work on all grains. Adding nitrogen-fixing capabilities would be great, too. These are the things I had long-ago thought genetic modification would be addressing (versus selling more herbicide).

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.