Gourmet grasslands: Harvesting a perennial future
Publication: One Earth Volume 5, Issue 1, 21 January 2022, Pages 14-17
The global food system is highly dependent on grains, the production of which requires annual biomass turnover, which reduces soil health and undermines sustainability. Investments in diverse perennial grain-producing crops that produce abundant biomass while enhancing ecosystem services are needed to sustain global food production and growing biomass demands.
Putting the brakes on runaway biomass cycling
Humanity depends directly upon the biomass production of Planet Earth for food, fuel, and fiber. Indirectly, we also rely upon the biomass of the planet for continual provision of ecosystem services such as soil formation, nutrient cycling, climate stability, and fresh water. However, as human appropriation of the earth’s biomass increases, provision of ecosystem services has declined. We hypothesize that these trends are connected by global food production, specifically the displacement of deep-rooted, long-lived plant communities by fast-growing, short-lived crops whose biomass is completely removed, killed, or plowed under each year. The solution to this problem is not simply research to increase the production of biomass, but R&D toward crops that can grow rapidly and be harvested frequently while investing in some durable, long-lived biomass. The bioenergy community has done exactly this in moving from biomass crops such as maize (annual) toward perennial grass and tree bioenergy crops. Here we argue that a similar investment is needed for food crops.