Transforming Agriculture, Perennially


| Our Team, The Land Institute

Harvest Letter 2023

Dear Friends,

As the summer field season draws to a close, I profoundly appreciate your instrumental role in our journey toward sustainable perennial agriculture. This season, we planted 1,500 seedlings from the latest generation of Kernza® breeding—a testament to your generosity and our shared vision. As the Lead Scientist of the Kernza Domestication Program at The Land Institute, my commitment to realizing the potential of perennial grains is unwavering, fueled by both the planet’s needs and your steadfast support. While those of us working in fields and breeding nurseries are witnessing significant advancements, we find that many agricultural leaders and scientists are unaware of what The Land Institute has achieved and the great potential we see if the work of developing perennial grain crops is sustained and expanded in the coming years.

To bridge this gap, I teamed up with 28 authors—from 21 different institutions in nine countries—over the past year to publish a paper spotlighting the consensus around the promise of perennial grains.

In my interactions with farmers and scientists, I hear overwhelming agreement that perennial grains yielding similarly to their annual counterparts would revolutionize farming, benefiting the environment and society at large. Yet, along with this broad consensus regarding the potential of perennial grains, a looming question remains: “Is it feasible?” Skeptics reason that if the effort to develop perennial grain crops is expensive and long-term, and if it is only theoretically possible to achieve, it may not be worth trying.

Based on substantive scientific evidence, my conviction is that the development of perennial grain crops is not only possible but also imminent. Admittedly, the articles I’ve co-authored to explain my viewpoint are technically dense, delving deep into quantitative genetics, evolutionary biology, plant ecology, and crop domestication. We’ve made a strong case for the potential of perennial grains, but in the end, we’ve mostly debated theories and reported incremental progress. Our skeptics agree with us on one point: If a crop that grows year after year can produce as much grain as one replanted every year, then those results will have decided the theoretical debate.

Case in point: A 2022 article in Nature Sustainability highlighted perennial rice achieving yields equivalent to its annual counterpart across eight harvests—an achievement not, I believe, limited to rice but forecasting the potential of a wide array of perennial grain crops. The journal Science pinpointed perennial rice as a defining 2022 breakthrough, underscoring its transformative potential. By dismantling perceived barriers, perennial rice has revealed the vast possibilities of new perennial crops—and our paper urges immediate and robust investment in perennial grain research.

The promise of perennial grains isn’t a recent discovery. Their myriad potential benefits, like soil conservation and bolstered farmer profits, provided the impetus for work on perennial rice and Kernza. As research has evolved over the past two decades, the scientific community has increasingly recognized the promise these grains hold in combating climate change. Yet, perennials still need to catch up to their annual counterparts in research and development. Now, more than ever, empowered by technological advancements, we must prioritize and intensify our commitment to making perennial grain agriculture a reality.

Perennial rice’s success story underscores The Land Institute and our partners’ roles in driving this future. Developed since the 1990s, our collaborators at Yunnan University introduced a perennial rice variety in 2018 that matched annual rice yields while significantly boosting soil health and reducing production costs. Its swift adoption by smallholder farms in China demonstrates the profound global impact high-yielding perennial grains can make when developed and funded. While Chinese researchers initiated and executed perennial rice development, The Land Institute was pivotal in supporting their efforts, from co-conceptualization and seed funding to annual research site visits and technical expertise.

Leveraging cutting-edge technologies and new insights into genes that control key domestication traits (e.g., yield, seed size, harvestability, etc.), we are entering an exciting era in perennial grain development. Genomic selection can accelerate breeding in perennials by accurately predicting the performance of plants using DNA collected at the seedling stage. We utilize this technique to cut years off every generation in
the domestication of Kernza. It holds promise for many potential perennial grains, including perennial flax, silflower, sorghum, sainfoin, barley, and more. These new methods could accelerate breeding efforts to produce viable new crops in just a decade or two, opening fresh doors of opportunity for transformative perennial grains if they receive the funding required to propel them forward.

However, challenges persist. Introducing perennial grains to traditional markets, adapting to new ecosystems, and managing pests are significant hurdles. But these very challenges embolden us. Echoing the resilience of prairie ecosystems, perennial grains bear inherent resistances and capacities to adapt, much like the deep-rooted grasses that weather storms and droughts alike. With fewer disturbances and a reduced need for replanting, preliminary studies suggest that these perennial grain agroecosystems can protect water quality, enhance wildlife habitat, build soil quality, and sequester soil carbon.

Aligning these ecological benefits with newly available technological capabilities, we are poised to make a transformative impact—and I humbly ask for your continued support. The story of perennial grains, and by extension, our own, is interwoven with the communities that will nurture them, the economies they’ll bolster, and the ecosystems they’ll sustain. This integration, while complex, promises a harmony we’ve long sought—one where agriculture supports and emulates nature’s timeless patterns.

In this season of reflection and generosity, I seek your continued partnership. Our accomplishments are as much a testament to your trust as our scientific pursuits.

Join us by investing in this vision today.

With gratitude and unwavering commitment,

Lee DeHaan, PhD
Lead Scientist, Kernza Domestication Program
The Land Institute


P.S. The Land Institute’s journey since 1976 has been one of imagination and discovery defined by steady, cumulative progress. Now, we stand at an inflection point—and your support can continue to accelerate us forward. Thank you for joining us on this journey toward a perennial agriculture future.

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