Written by Matt DiLeo
The “perennial grain” story seems to pop up every few months. The basic idea is that perennial crops would have higher yields and lower environmental impacts than their annual kin.
The picture on the left explains pretty clearly why – large permanent root systems secure the topsoil, exhaustively scavenge water and nutrients and support more vigorous shoot growth over a longer season.
This week, it’s perennial maize.
One thing that I think is funny about these stories is that they inevitably herald the accompanying freedom from multinational seed companies. Aside from the fact that no farmer’s forced to buy seed, I don’t see any reason why companies wouldn’t jump on a perennial grain bandwagon.* Companies like Monsanto are already selling/developing advanced varieties (e.g. Bt/Roundup) of perennial crops like alfalfa and sugarcane.**
Companies don’t have to sell seed every year to make money. In this case, I’ve heard they’ll be offering an annual license agreement (e.g. you buy the seed the first year and pay a license fee each following year that you continue to cultivate the crop). I think it shows a lack of creativity that people always pin the blame on what they don’t like about the state of agriculture on the “need” for companies to sell seed every spring. There’re lots of ways to do business.
Which isn’t to say I’d expect companies to make the initial investment – jumpstarting speculative new technologies and industries is the role of governments and non-profits. According to Ed Buckler (in the article), an easy $15-30 million should do this. This is an inconsequential speck in the U.S. budget and we should probably just get it done.
* I heard that a coalition of wheat farmers actually petitioned companies like Monsanto to begin reinvesting in transgenic wheat varieties since wheat yields have fallen so far behind other crops like maize.
** Pest and herbicide resistance is particularly valuable in perennial systems as bugs and weeds tend to build up over years without tilling or rotation.
*** It might also be a concern how you can maintain a high genetic gain in yield year-by-year and decade-by-decade when you switch an annual to a perennial, but I imagine the gains inherent to perennialism paired with our incredible current breeding technology should make this well worth it.
Written by Guest Expert
Matt DiLeo has a PhD in Plant Pathology from UC, Davis. During his postdoctoral research at Boyce Thompson Institute, he researched unintentional effects of genetic engineering. Matt builds R&D teams and biotech platforms: genome editing, gene discovery, microbials, and controlled environment agriculture.