Perennial Grains Could be the Future of Regenerative Agriculture
The Environmental and Energy Study Institute recently wrote an article detailing the role of The Land Institute in promoting Natural Systems Agriculture through the development of perennial grain crops that can promote soil conservation, carbon sequestration, and climate resilience.
When left undisturbed, naturally-occurring vegetation tends to grow back year after year. In agriculture, this is also true of perennial crops such as olive trees, asparagus, many types of fruit, and grazing crops for animal consumption. However, agricultural grains, which make up over 70 percent of global croplands, are almost always annual crops that need to be replanted every year.
Unlike perennials, annual crops require farmers to use soil-intensive practices such as tilling, plowing, and applying herbicides to reseed fields. The soil essentially has to be cleared of anything that might compete with the annual crops as they grow anew. Land management practices involved with annual grains are costly for the climate and farmers alike.
By requiring fewer soil-intensive practices, perennials make it easier to keep soil healthy, and healthy soil is important for more than just a good yield. It can also increase resilience to climate change impacts and provide carbon sequestration services. The term soil encompasses organic matter and living organisms that allow the soil to take in and store water when it rains. Soil health—as determined by its biological, chemical, and physical state—refers to the capacity of the soil to function as a living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and people. The healthier the soil, the greater its capacity to hold water, which makes croplands more resilient against both drought and flooding. Just a one percent increase in organic matter within the soil would allow U.S. croplands to store the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in 150 days. Farmers can minimize the need for tillage, which disrupts the soil structure that enables water storage, by transitioning to perennial grain systems in combination with other methods of regenerative agriculture.
The Land Institute is a well-established leader in the field of perennial crop development. The non-profit research organization develops farming practices that mimic natural systems. This approach, referred to as Natural Systems Agriculture, combines a return to traditional farming techniques with scientific advancements in plant breeding in order to work with the environment rather than against it. The two main objectives of Natural Systems Agriculture are to provide ample food and eliminate the negative impacts of industrial agriculture. While its focus is on perennial grains, The Land Institute is also working to produce perennial legumes, rice, and oilseed crops.