Perennial Crops Boost Biodiversity Both On and Off Farms. Researchers Explain How.
Food and agriculture publication Civil Eats released an article documenting the ability of perennial grain crops to promote biodiversity and ecological well-being both on and off farms, which highlights their value as food crops and components of diverse and functional agroecosystems.
“From an observational standpoint, having more perennials in a system makes sense,” said Ebony Murrell, a lead scientist at The Land Institute, a Kansas-based nonprofit that conducts research to help develop diverse, perennial, and regenerative agricultural systems at scale. “We’re trying to better mimic ecological processes to produce a system that can better provide ecosystem services.”
On farms, perennial crops provide year-round homes for a number of species, from insects to mammals to soil microbes. For instance, a 2022 study that Murrell helped conduct found that flowering perennial border crops support particularly robust pollinator communities. That’s in part because most bees native to the U.S.—like sweat bees and long-horn bees—are solitary and live underground, and they require undisturbed habitat.
A flowering grain legume called sanfoin is good at attracting honeybees and native leafcutting bees, Murrell said, and a sunflower-like native prairie plant called silflower, which is being developed as an oilseed crop, is popular among native bees. “We have so far found over 35 species of bees visiting that one plant,” Murrell said. “We are interested in trying to get it planted in more places to help serve that purpose.”
Additionally, perennial crops like Kernza, the grain developed by The Land Institute, provide habitat for ground-nesting birds and other animals. “A vegetated landscape is going to accommodate species that a tilled, denuded landscape as far as the eye can see does not,” said Tim Crews, chief scientist at The Land Institute and director of its international program. “There are going to be a lot of species that take advantage of it.”