Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

First International Perennial Grain Breeding Workshop

BY David Van Tassel
Hu Feng-yi shows Land Institute scientists a perennial rice plant.

Hu Feng-yi shows Land Institute scientists a perennial rice plant.

In a major expansion of The Land Institute’s vision of soil-conserving, grain-producing agriculture, in September scientists from three continents gathered in Kunming, China, to exchange data and seeds. The workshop was hosted by the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Bright red Chinese characters scroll across the LED display as we enter the elegant conference room. English text catches our attention: “First International Perennial Grain Breeding Workshop.” Perhaps because none of us had ever really expected to see “perennial grains” in lights, we stop and stare. We take photos.

The godfather of perennial rice, Tao Da-yun, opened the conference, particularly welcoming the international delegates. Da-yun, working in Thailand in the 1980s, made the world’s first and only perennial and fertile hybrid between rice and a wild perennial African species. He now directs the academy’s Food Crops Institute, which houses the perennial rice breeding program that The Land Institute has supported financially for three years.

We tread carefully, single file, on narrow dikes that divide paddies at the year-round rice breeding nursery on tropical Hainan Island. A misplaced shoe will quickly be buried in 12 to 18 inches of gray, anaerobic muck. Most rice grows in level, frequently flooded paddies. Three clumps of grass have nearly taken over a paddy. These are from Da-yun’s hybrid. They are clearly healthy, long-lived and aggressively spreading. They are also almost completely seedless. Our guide, rice geneticist Hu Feng-yi, assures us that most of the plants in the perennial rice program are not as invasive. He leads us from paddy to paddy, many containing several thousand plants. Each plant was transplanted by hand. It’s a good thing that Feng-yi and his team are such workaholics: The first set of about 6,000 plants yielded only two plants that made both seeds and the underground stems lacking in normal, short-lived rice. The breeders make progress by letting these few fertile plants self-pollinate over several generations, and by crossing them back to annual rice. They also are developing genetic maps and markers to speed selection, before plants go to the field.

“We will look back on this workshop as the international launching of the perennial grain revolution,” Land Institute research director Stan Cox told the group. Stan and Feng-yi organized the meeting. Later in the day, Land Institute plant breeders gave presentations about their work in Kansas. Don Wyse, of the University of Minnesota, told how he and his students are breeding perennial grain sunflowers and flax. Len Wade, of Australia’s Charles Sturt University, described how 10 perennial wheat breeding lines from Washington State University, The Land Institute and the Australians’ own work have survived to produce second seed crops. Land Institute wheat breeder Lee DeHaan has provided Len material from more recent breeding. The Land Institute also has supplied the Yunnan Academy with seed. They showed only a handful of wheat and sunflower plants, but had a vast greenhouse area growing sorghum, and some of the lines looked very good — in some cases even better than in our fields. This is not a formal breeding program. As with so many projects and prospects discussed at the conference, there is the challenge of funding.

As the plane drops below clouds, among lush hills appear rivers colored like chocolate. Erosion. We have flown from Kunming to an isolated region near Thailand, to see where perennial rice could first and most dramatically cut soil loss. Rice here is far less productive than the paddy rice in Asia’s agricultural heartlands. But it is grown on sloping ground even without terraces, which are tremendously costly. After hours of driving on narrow, twisty roads, we emerge from young rubber tree plantations that feed China’s growing demand for car tires. A green field falls away from the road. It is dotted with charred stumps. We meet a wiry farmer. His challenges: The unprotected soil and nutrients will wash downhill between rice crops. In a couple of years the spent field will be abandoned and he will have to cut another patch of forest, burn the stumps and hoe up the ground. The benefits of a perennial crop that holds tightly to both soil and nutrients are obvious.

The Chinese conference audience amazed Stan by staying through talks in English that many couldn’t understand. But there followed an even more uplifting conclusion: Several of Feng-yi’s colleagues requested speaking slots at the last minute. Conversations the previous day had excited them about perennial grains, and they wanted to brainstorm. Small-grain breeder Yang Ju-hua expressed interest in perennial wheat. Subsistence farmers would be very interested in perennial wheat because erosion is severe on highland wheat fields, he had told Lee earlier. And because most of the wheat is used directly by the farm family, he said, perennial wheat could be adopted in China long before it is commercially viable in Australia or the United States. His photos of tiny wheat fields on steep, eroded hillsides made his sense of urgency clear.

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