The Emergence of Perennial Wheat

| 3/20/2014 8:59:00 AM

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.

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).

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