20 November 2010

Economic and Ecological Benefits of Perennial Wheat

Posted by John Freeland

The Wheat Field, Sunset by Vincent van Gogh (1890).

Researchers at Michigan State University, Washington State University and The Land Institute at Kansas State University have been running trials on “perennial wheat.” Perennial wheat gets planted once and is harvested several times, unlike conventional wheat that requires tilling and seeding the soil every growing season. With only a few months to grow, conventional wheat develops shallow roots and soil is exposed to wind and water erosion for much of the year. Runoff carries the sediment, laden with nutrients and herbicides, to streams and rivers. Perennial wheat could have lower production costs and other ecological benefits. From researchers at Washington State University:

Perennial grains…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 10 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.

Field trials of the hybrid perennial wheat are showing promise.
Video from MSU Kellog Biological Station

I had a professor on my dissertation committee at North Dakota State University who insisted that much of the rise in global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over the past 100-years was due to plowing up the organic-rich Mollisols in the North American Plains. The organic matter content in those hard-working soils is down at least fifty-percent from what it was one-hundred years ago. The carbon had to go somewhere. Some of it went to the ocean, some into the air.

Perennial wheat is an exciting development, but like any new innovation, its entry into mainstream farming practice may upset those who benefit from the status quo. The flip-side of lower costs means somebody does less business UNLESS those businesses can move into new markets.

Related article: Against the Grain Gourmet Magazine, July 2007.
Image source:Wikimedia Commons.