Perennial grains are the future of sustainable agriculture

Illustration showing annual grains and perennial grains growing from 12 to 24 months, with longer roots for perennial grains.

Standard annual grain roots vs. perennial grain roots of the Kernza grain. (The Land Institute/CC-BY-NC-ND)

Related Topics:
Agriculture, Storyfest 2023

What if crops grew back every year like your lawn does each spring?

If you’re a farmer, a gardener or a scientist, I know your ears just perked up — but this story isn’t just for you. Such an innovation would have an impact on the entire food system, and anyone who eats.

In this episode of The Food Fix, I will walk listeners through the past, present and future of agriculture all in 14 minutes. I start off explaining the birth of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, where humans first began domesticating crops. Then I fast forward to the present and explain how our current agricultural way of life is thanks to 10,000 years of breeding. Once everyone is caught up, I present the idea of perennial grains.

Grains like corn, soy and wheat make up about 50% of every human’s diet. We grow 2.2 billion tons of grains each year to meet that need. And at the end of every season, we rip up those “amber rays of grain” and release all the precious carbon that was being stored in the roots back into the atmosphere. Not to mention, the cycle is hard on farmers and the soil.

But what if we could leave grain crops in the ground for a few years? Their roots would grow long and deep and the soil microbiome would flourish.

To create such a crop naturally would take thousands of years, but scientists at The Land Institute have discovered a way to engineer it in just 50.

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