Monday, May 9, 2011

Scientists work on perennial crops to cut damage to land

Monday, May 9, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The time could come when farmers aren't getting on their tractors every spring to plant their crops, or even plowing their fields, exposing those fields to erosion.

  • farmer takes advantage of good weather to plow a field near Fort Calhoun, Neb., on April 4, 2011.

    Nati Harnik, AP

    farmer takes advantage of good weather to plow a field near Fort Calhoun, Neb., on April 4, 2011.

Nati Harnik, AP

farmer takes advantage of good weather to plow a field near Fort Calhoun, Neb., on April 4, 2011.

At least that's the vision of a few scientists -- and a senior Obama administration official -- who want to develop perennial versions of corn, wheat, rice and other crops that don't need to be planted every year and wouldn't cause the environmental damage linked to growing conventional grains.

"Getting to the yields of today's corn in central Iowa with a perennial corn will not happen quickly, but I do think it is possible," said Ed Buckler, an Agriculture Department scientist at Cornell University in New York. "With prior technology, it would have taken 100-plus years. Now, I think we can do it in 20 years with a concerted effort."

The idea of replacing annual food crops with perennials has long been on the fringe of agricultural research, largely confined to a private facility in Kansas called the Land Institute.

But Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, a lead author of the nation's organic food standards during a previous stint at the USDA, has been talking up perennial grains as a promising way to produce food with less environmental impact.

"We're interested in the development of perennial grains -- big seeds, high yields," she said at a recent food-policy conference in Washington. "These plants with deep roots to hold the soil in place and pick up water and nutrients year-round could reduce the demand for water over the more typical annual grain that produce a big harvest but die each year."

She noted that the USDA is financing some initial research into the genetic basis of perennialism and developing the genetics for breeding perennial crops.

However, perennial crops have little appeal to today's agribusiness, including seed giants like Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto.

"They depend on selling a lot of seed every year," said Bill Beavis, interim director of Iowa State University's Plant Sciences Institute. "I'm not sure the perennials ever catch up just because they don't have the resources" in terms of research funding.

So far, the USDA is spending nothing close to what scientists say the research needs.

An article last year in the journal Science co-authored by Buckler and scientists at the Land Institute and elsewhere, said perennial grain crops could be ready in 20 years but that it would take a monetary commitment comparable to what the government is now putting into developing biofuel crops.

The USDA has asked Congress for $1 million in fiscal 2012 for perennial grain or sunflower research at its own labs, a slight increase over this year's money. In 2009-10, the department provided about $1.5 million in grants for perennial grains research at the Land Institute and a few universities.

A serious effort to breed perennial corn crops would require spending $1 million to $2 million for five years to identify the genes necessary for perennialism, Buckler said. After that, $10 million to $20 million a year and dozens of scientists would be needed to breed a perennial corn that could eventually be commercialized, he said.

With deep roots, perennial crops would prevent top soil from washing away, lessening the need for nitrogen fertilizer and reducing the amount of farm chemicals that pollute rivers and streams.

"Before agriculture, 95% of the Earth's ice-free land surface was covered by mixtures of perennial plants," said Stan Cox, senior research scientist at the Land Institute, which has focused on crops such as wheat because of the center's location in Kansas. "On land like that, you see virtually no erosion."

It's a steep challenge to develop perennials that can produce grain at the rate of annuals, which have fed humans for millennia. There are tradeoffs when breeding plants for producing seed, or grain, or for longevity, scientists say. Perennials put much of their efforts into developing roots, rather than seeds.

Still, Buckler said it's theoretically possible to develop perennials that produce even more grain than annuals, based on the fact that perennials have a longer growing season and won't need to re-grow their roots.

Iowa State economist Chad Hart said it will be tough to come up with a perennial crop that can be as attractive to farmers as today's corn. Last year's harvest of more than 12 billion bushels was worth $67 billion. Farmers in Iowa are expected to earn $300 an acre growing corn, meaning that a farmer with 500 acres could make $150,000, after expenses.

"That's a massive crop market," Hart said. "Trying to develop something that will replace even part of that is a massive achievement."


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