Perennial grain crops have the potential to alleviate or reverse soil degradation and increase crop profitability for smallholder African farmers. Grain crops are typically annuals, meaning they are grown, harvested, and die all in the same year with no plants surviving onto the next year. As a result, crop fields need to be tilled and re-planted every year. The repeated disturbance of those activities can severely degrade soils by causing losses of organic matter. Breeding grain crops to be perennial so that they survive year-to- year and do not need to be replanted may alleviate some of these issues while also reducing labor requirements for farmers. Perennial crops have more extensive root systems that stay in place all year, reducing soil erosion and increasing the amount of organic matter that is returned to the soil. Increased soil organic matter can improve fertility and water retention. There are several ongoing perennial grain breeding projects as well as indigenous perennial crops/varietals that may present useful options for smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa. Read more about perennial grains for Africa and access a new bibliography of over 900 papers on perennial grains. Additionally, learn more about perennial cereal research at MSU.
Perennial grain crops represent a transformative agricultural technology based on environmental, agroecological, and socioeconomic principles.
- Soil conservation: the in situ rooting systems of perennial grains at the beginning of rainy seasons may reduce erosion from fields,
- Soil health: perennial grain crops may establish more extensive root systems than annual grains, which contributes to increased soil organic matter,
- Agrobiodiversity: perennial grains may enhance the diversity of crops grown by smallholder farmers, andare well suited for intercropping with either annual or perennial crops.
- Climate resilience: The increased chances of unpredictable climatic conditions calls on multiple strategies to buffer smallholder farming systems from the impacts of climate change. Historical precedent shows that long-duration and ratooned crops contribute to the food security of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa during times of extreme drought.
- There has been little research devoted to the development of these crops for use in the tropics, particularly for marginal lands.
- Adoption by farmers may be difficult, especially without seeing immediate benefits and profits from soil conservation.
Note: A Comprehensive Perennial Grains Bibliography can be found at: https://www.zotero.org/groups/perennial_grains/items. You can search for specific topics using the Tags function.
Cox, T.S., D.L. Van Tassel, C.M. Cox, and L.R. Dehaan. 2010. “Progress in Breeding Perennial Grains.” Crop and Pasture Science 61 (7): 513–21. doi:10.1071/CP09201.
Cox, Thomas S., Jerry D. Glover, David L. Van Tassel, Cindy M. Cox, and Lee R. DeHaan. 2006. “Prospects for Developing Perennial-Grain Crops.” Bioscience 56 (8): 649–59. doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2006)56[649:PFDPGC]2.0.CO;2.
Culman, Steve W., Sieglinde S. Snapp, Mary Ollenburger, Bruno Basso, and Lee R. DeHaan. 2013. “Soil and Water Quality Rapidly Responds to the Perennial Grain Kernza Wheatgrass.” Agronomy Journal 105 (3): 735–44. doi:10.2134/agronj2012.0273.
DeHaan, L. R., D. L. Van Tassel, and T. S. Cox. 2005. “Perennial Grain Crops: A Synthesis of Ecology and Plant Breeding.” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 20 (1): 5–14. doi:10.1079/RAF200496.Read more
DeHaan, L.R., N.J. Ehlke, C.C. Sheaffer, G.J. Muehlbauer, and D.L. Wyse. 2003. “Illinois Bundleflower Genetic Diversity Determined by AFLP Analysis.” Crop Science 43 (1): 402–8.
DeHaan, L.R., N.J. Ehlke, C.C. Sheaffer, R.L. DeHaan, and D.L. Wyse. 2003. “Evaluation of Diversity among and within Accessions of Illinois Bundleflower.” Crop Science 43 (4): 1528–37.
DeHaan, Lee R., and David L. Van Tassel. 2014. “Useful insights from evolutionary biology for developing perennial grain crops.” American Journal of Botany 101 (10): 1801–19. doi:10.3732/ajb.1400084.
DeHaan, Lee R., Sanford Weisberg, David Tilman, and Dario Fornara. 2010. “Agricultural and Biofuel Implications of a Species Diversity Experiment with Native Perennial Grassland Plants.” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 137 (1–2): 33–38. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2009.10.017.
Glover, J. D., J. P. Reganold, L. W. Bell, J. Borevitz, E. C. Brummer, E. S. Buckler, C. M. Cox, et al. 2010. “Increased Food and Ecosystem Security via Perennial Grains.” Science 328 (5986): 1638–39. doi:10.1126/science.1188761.
Glover, Jerry D., Steve W. Culman, S. Tianna DuPont, Whitney Broussard, Lauren Young, Margaret E. Mangan, John G. Mai, et al. 2010. “Harvested Perennial Grasslands Provide Ecological Benchmarks for Agricultural Sustainability.” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 137 (1–2): 3–12. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2009.11.001.
Hayes, R.C., M.T. Newell, L.R. DeHaan, K.M. Murphy, S. Crane, M.R. Norton, L.J. Wade, et al. 2012. “Perennial Cereal Crops: An Initial Evaluation of Wheat Derivatives.” Field Crops Research 133 (0): 68–89. doi:10.1016/j.fcr.2012.03.014.
Petersen, Brian, and Sieg Snapp. 2015. “What Is Sustainable Intensification? Views from Experts.” Land Use Policy 46 (0): 1–10. doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2015.02.002.
Pimm, Stuart L. 1997. “Agriculture: In Search of Perennial Solutions.” Nature 389 (6647): 126–27. doi:10.1038/38126.
Runck, B.C., M.B. Kantar, N.R. Jordan, J.A. Anderson, D.L. Wyse, J.O. Eckberg, R.J. Barnes, et al. 2014. “The Reflective Plant Breeding Paradigm: A Robust System of Germplasm Development to Support Strategic Diversification of Agroecosystems.” Crop Science 54 (5): 1939–48. doi:10.2135/cropsci2014.03.0195.
Van Tassel, David L., Lee R. DeHaan, and Thomas S. Cox. 2010. “Missing Domesticated Plant Forms: Can Artificial Selection Fill the Gap?” Evolutionary Applications 3 (5-6): 434–52. doi:10.1111/j.1752-4571.2010.00132.x.
Van Tassel, David, and Lee DeHaan. 2013. “Wild Plants to the Rescue.” American Scientist 100 (3): 218. doi:10.1511/2013.102.218.
Zhang, Xiaofei, Lee R. DeHaan, LeeAnn Higgins, Todd W. Markowski, Donald L. Wyse, and James A. Anderson. 2014. “New Insights into High-Molecular- Weight Glutenin Subunits and Sub-Genomes of the Perennial Crop Thinopyrum Intermedium (Triticeae).” Journal of Cereal Science 59 (2): 203–10. doi:10.1016/j.jcs.2014.01.008.
Agroecology, Soil Science, Extension, Development