Creating perennial crops.
Agricultural industry (Research)
Keeney, Dennis
Pub Date:
Name: Issues in Science and Technology Publisher: National Academy of Sciences Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 National Academy of Sciences ISSN: 0748-5492
Date: Wntr, 2012 Source Volume: 28 Source Issue: 2
Event Code: 310 Science & research
Government Agency: United States. Agricultural Research Service

Accession Number:
Full Text:
"Paying for Perennialism" by Sarah Whelchel and Elizabeth Popp Berman (Issues, Fall 2011) calls attention to an important area of research that, if successful in its goals, will enhance agricultural sustainability in the face of the growing world demand for food and the many challenges of a changing climate. Although past research to develop perennial grains has been slowgoing, today's genomics-based tools are enabling breeders to work much faster and attempt ambitious projects not previously possible.

The article understates the role that federal research is playing to move perennialism forward. Since the early 1900s, research has provided new tools to identify ideal traits in plants and more efficiently breed them into crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDAs) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has not only had a formative role in the recent developments and applications of agricultural genomic technology, but has contributed to a wide range of other advances, helping keep our farms productive and our food system safe and secure. This research complements and supports related research by public, private, and foundation partners.

Although the USDA is facing the same budget challenges felt across the nation, researchers are certainly not "walking away from work on perennials," as the article suggests. There are formidable challenges to developing crop perennial types with winter hardiness, substantial yields, pest protection traits, and desired end-use qualities. The technical ability to dissect the genetic basis of perennialism and to apply breeding advances that are working so successfully in annual crops is only now becoming possible. At ARS, we are initiating research on the application of new technologies, including whole genome sequencing, genome-wide association studies, and rapid genetic selection methods, to perennial improvement.

ARS plant geneticists such as Ed Buckler (co-located at Cornell University) are leading the effort to make perennial corn production a reality. Among a broad array of crop genetic improvement projects, Buckler and his team are working to dissect perennialism by exploiting new genomic information and inexpensive DNA sequencing. They are also initiating experiments with Tripsacum, a genus closely related to the corn genus, Zea, to clone the genes needed for winter tolerance in the U.S. Midwest.


In Raleigh, North Carolina, ARS maize geneticist James Holland is working to design a breeding scheme to develop perennial corn, exploring the possibilities of intercrossing domesticated corn and its perennial relative wild teosinte.

In North Dakota, Fargo-based ARS scientist Jason Farris is discovering domestication genes in wheat and Brett Hulke is evaluating perennials in the USDA sunflower germplasm collection for disease resistance and working with crop breeders to introduce these genes into cultivated sunflower.

Work on perennials is also happening at other ARS laboratories across the country, in places such as Lincoln, Nebraska; Griffin, Georgia; and Kear-neysville, West Virginia. While improving crops through genomics and breeding techniques is the first step in getting new varieties into the hands of producers, research will also be needed to determine how improved perennials respond to different agronomic practices and natural resource management to ensure that the potential represented in genetically improved crops is ally achieved while ensuring sustainable production.

Underlying all crop improvement research are the conserved genetic resources in the National Plant Germplasm System, which includes perennial grain accessions. This extensive USDA collection, which importantly involves our land-grant university partners, is used by plant breeders across the nation and world to enhance the potential of crops, with benefits to our food security, food safety, nutrition, and the environment--far beyond the "well-worn path of agricultural research and production" stereotype of maximizing yields at all cost, as suggested in the article.

USDA research on perennialism is but one part of a much larger portfolio of agricultural science that is taking a multipronged approach to solving critical food, agricultural, natural resource, and sustainability challenges faced by the United States and the world. Conducted and/or supported by ARS and its sister USDA agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the broad agricultural science portfolio of USDA and its partners is coordinated by USDA Chief Scientist Catherine Woteki.

Within this system, particular roles of ARS are to conduct long-term, high-reward research supporting a diversity of production system approaches and engage in precommercial, foundational research where the private sector is not involved.

There is always more that can and must be done to advance this research. In the face of a growing global population and growing demand for food, sustainability will require the kinds of technological innovation that only result from dedication and coordination. Achieving sustainability also requires sustained investment, and now more than ever agricultural research needs continued and enhanced public support. Smart investments in agricultural research today will pay dividends to our world tomorrow.



Agricultural Research Service

U.S. Department of Agriculture Washington, DC

Wes Jackson and I share a common theme, enjoying life in our seventh decade. And we both come from Midwestern farm stock, he from Kansas and I from Iowa. Wes, however, grew up in wheat country, and I was in corn country. Maybe this is why I did not catch Wess dream of perennialism earlier in my professional career spanning over five decades of soil science and related fields.

It was only when I moved beyond the halls of peer-reviewed academia to direct the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture that I could see Wess forest. Now it is obvious that a perennial agriculture has a place in row crop agriculture, even in Iowa, where almost all the cultivated land is in corn and soybeans, and heaven help the poor farmer who might suggest otherwise at the local coffee shop.

Neither Wes nor I would, I think, advocate a 100% perennial landscape if we are serious about food crop production and maintaining economic viability. But the current barren land-scape would greatly benefit by patches of perenniality that will also provide food and income. In fact, that was the agriculture of old, the one of Grant Wood paintings. Pasture dotted the hilly land, alfalfa (a three- to four-year rotation legume perennial) supported dairy herds, and beef herds and trees lined the streams. Fence rows that kept the neighbors cattle from straying were filled with diverse plants harboring beneficial insects.

Except for a few pockets of sanity, those landscapes are gone and probably will not return. Driven by economics, the big industrial farm stranglehold on agriculture has pushed soil erosion over tolerable limits, loaded the streams with sediment and nitrate, and depopulated the countryside. We have created an agriculture so risky that when things go wrong, as they often do in a world of changing climate, agriculture is too big to fail and must be a major part of the federal farm bill.

Perennials could fill a huge void here. They would add diversity, both financial and biological. If used wisely, proper perennial crops would greatly lower erosion. Carbon sequestration would be greatly enhanced. Benefits would be huge beyond the costs. But it is obvious that big federal research dollars will not go to perennial crops, no matter how much pleading is done and appeals to common sense are made by well-meaning folks. But that does not mean that there are not pockets of excellence out there in the research plots and labs of the land grant universities and the USDA.

Visionaries such as Wes Jackson are needed in this world even more than ever. But we are not training visionaries nor allowing them even to dream. Instead, they publish or perish, pile up grant dollars to fill an ever-deepening portfolio black hole, and are rewarded with who's who plaques. So who will be the dreamers of the future? The National Science Foundation should try to identify them now and get them headed on the road to saving our world, because academia is not doing it very well.


Professor Emeritus, Iowa State University

Senior Fellow, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Minneapolis, Minnesota
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