- Demand for agricultural production will continue to rise as population grows and consumers eat more meat;
- Resources such as soil, water and oil -not only used for fuel but also for its derived fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides-, are all becoming scarce;
- Agriculture is progressively putting pressure on ecosystems by polluting waters, destroying habitat and emitting greenhouse gases;
- Adapting to climatic variability is also a major concern.
- Stop expanding agriculture
- Close yield gaps
- Increase agricultural resource efficiency
- Shift diets away from meat
- Reduce waste
Imagine: “an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops" –The Land Institute
However annual grains have become staples over agriculture’s history through millennia of breeding and domestication due to desired traits such as: providing high yields of calorie and protein; being easy to transport and store; being relatively imperishable; and also, their greater market value often pressures farmers to grow them over perennial plants.
On the other hand, perennial plants have environmentally appealing traits, which are somewhat inherent to their more extensive root system, their better ground cover and their longer life span. Compared to annuals, perennial plants:
- Are more efficient at using water and nutrients (which decreases the need of inputs and their related costs)
- Sequester more carbon and protect soil from erosion (which is good for the soil health and climate regulation)
- Are more capable of being sustainable crops on marginal lands
- Are more robust and resilient to climatic variability
“Perennial farming can reduce erosion rates by up to 50 percent” - Pimentel et al., 1997
“Annual crops lose up to five times more water than perennials”- Glover et al., 2010
Perennial grains represent a paradigm shift in agriculture and hold great potential to move towards sustainable production systems. However, the main lesson learned lies around valuing perennial characteristics to address the challenge of global food security and environmental sustainability: introducing existing perennial plants to complement annual agricultural systems without the need to breed new perennial grain varieties should not be overlooked.
Whether if it is agroforestry, permaculture or any other name for a food production system that integrates perennials intentionally, such systems are looking beyond the reductionist benefits of annual monocrops and are including the care for the earth and each other, over time, and in a fairer way.
-By Anna Zisa
FAO. 2013. Perennial Crops for Food Security. Proceedings of the PAO Expert Workshop. Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services in Agriculture Production Systems. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3495e.pdf
Foley, J.A. Ramankutty, N., Brauman, K.A., Cassidy, E.S., Gerber, J.S., Johnston, M., Mueller, N.D., O’Connell, C., Ray, D.K., West, P.C., Balzer, C., Bennett, E.M., Carpenter, S.R., Hill, J., Monfreda, C., Polasky, S., Rockström, J., Sheehan, J., & Siebert, S., Tilman, D. & Zaks, D.P.M. 2011. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature. 478: 337–342. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v478/n7369/full/nature10452.html
Glover, J.D., Cox, C.M. and J.P. Reganold. 2007.Future of Farming: A return to roots? Agriculture. Scientific American. Vol. 86. https://landinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Glover-et-al-2007-Sci-Am.pdf
Kunzing, R. 2011. The Big Idea: Perennial Grains. National Geographic. Web accessed Oct 14th 2015: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/04/big-idea/perennial-grains-text
Mission 2015. The Advantages of Perennial Agriculture. http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2015/2015/perennial_agriculture.html
Pimentel, D., Wilson, C., McCullum, C., Huang, R., Dwen, P., Flack, J., . . . Cliff, B. (1997). Economic and environmental benefits of biodiversity.Bioscience, 47(11), pp. 747-757. http://udel.edu/~gshriver/pdf/Pimenteletal1997.pdf
The Land Institute. www.thelandinstitute.org