Perennial wheat

We don’t have an agriculture topic here, which might be nice. I’ve always admired fruit trees because they don’t require breaking up the earth annually to produce food. Annual crops have created huge problems with erosion since the very beginning of the agricultural revolution. It has been theorized that great civilizations have risen and fallen as a result of breaking up the earth, producing huge crops at first but destroying the soil over time.

This article is about a man who has spent his life developing a new kind of agriculture. I read a book he wrote and attended one of his lectures about 30 years ago, but he’s still in the news.


Nice read. And intresting dream.

I really like perrenial food plants to. Seem to solve a lot of problems (soil errosion, need for herbicides. If interplanted less need for pesticides)

They do bring their own problems. Yield is usually one.

Most of our current foodcrops can be considered pioneer plants. Hence the need for breaking up the earth. To created a disturbed area for our pioneer food plants.
An advantage of pioneer plants is usualy quick growth and good yield. Since they only have a short while, till the area is no longer disturbed and goes back to mostly perrenial equilibrium.

Ofcourse im oversimplifying here.

But im verry curious how agriculture will change during my lifetime.

I suspect however with the growing amount of food needed. It will be easier or more economical to continue roughly how we are doing things now And find a new “bandage” solution to postpone the problems created by our current system.

Than to switch over to a better long term system.


In 2014 Washington State University embarked on a program to develop perennial wheat and barley that could be grown north of Seattle to provide a local source for bakers, brewers, and farmers.

I remember visiting the plots at the end of that first year and being shocked at how sickly the plants looked. Most plants showed severe signs of rust. Even though the summers here are dry, early fall rains are responsible for a host of late fungal diseases.

In the years that followed, crosses were made with regionally adapted wheats and wild relatives to develop rust resistance.

Now, locally grown wheat flour is now being offered at my co-op from these selected strains! Quite a success!

Breeding wheat for integrated and diversified farms in the PNW

Colin Curwen-McAdams1, Steve Lyon1, Dr. Stephen Jones1 1WSU-Mount Vernon NWREC, Mount Vernon, WA 98273

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It is a success economically if it has a niche market of people willing to pay more for a product because they like the idea of it. It is a success environmentally if it is productive enough to compete globally with typical annual wheat varieties because it is nearly as productive per acre. If it requires a lot more space to grow the same amount of food it isn’t a big success by Jackson’s terms.

Are you sure it was perennial? I’ve never heard of any perennial wheat or barley – would it even still be wheat or barley if it were perennial? – that has made it to market at any price.

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For a more realistic overview of perennial wheat:

This statement, to my mind, is so silly that I won’t even bother to go further, “They’re probably productive enough to found a workable agriculture, and they’re certainly less ecologically damaging,”

Any agriculture is extremely ecologically damaging unless, perhaps, the only species you are concerned about is the human one and just the organism, not their contentment.

Any source of food that takes more acreage to produce the same quantity of calories as could be obtained at the site with a similar food source is at least ecologically damaging from that standpoint, and it is far from a minor shortcoming.

What one man considers realistic another considers ideology.

I’m not an extremist and am happy to have small farmers exploit ideology for a profit- the possible inefficiency created by land use for specialty crops for the wealthy is a problem overridden by the virtue of providing meaningful (seeming) work in a world where such jobs are in serious demand.

@alan But are calories the only thing we are looking for from a food source? I would argue that we already have more than enough calories, but a deficiency of nutrients.

I agree conventional agriculture practices are very damaging. I have been interested for a while now in regenerative agriculture, but unfortunately, I don’t have enough land (just a suburban lot) to really put many of these techniques into practice.

Here is a list of organizations that promote/practice regenerative agriculture: 17 Organizations Promoting Regenerative Agriculture Around the Globe. I am glad to see that my local polytech university now has a major in regenerative agriculture.

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It is an essential component of what we grow food for, obviously. The efficiency of producing in terms of calories per acre is probably of the most ecologically important issue in agriculture, especially if you put it in terms of centuries of productivity of said acreage. Of course, you have to weigh that against other kinds of ecological damage that may go beyond the fields, such as leached chemicals that pollute ground water.

It does get more interesting when you assess productivity including the calories in via petro, pesticides and fertilizers and subtract those from what comes from the crops.

Cheap petroleum and natural gas derived nitrogen has had a great deal to do with the explosion of the global economy and population in the last century. These production methods are almost certainly not sustainable- but alternate energy sources is a subject for another topic.

@alan I don’t really understand what points you’re trying to make in response to the link I shared.

I took a direct quote from the introduction and I’m suggesting that someone who would make such a statement isn’t worth more of my time. It is entirely logical to say a crop is more ecologically damaging if it requires more space and energy to produce the same amount of food as a similar crop. That is a basic tenet of sustainability and ecological merit of food crops. We have run out of enough space to make everyone happy and clearing more land to feed us all is ecologically destructive.

That’s not what Smaje meant with that quote, though.

First of all, the whole article is a critique of ideas like those of the Land Insititute, pointing out how inefficient perennial grain crops currently are and suggesting reasons for why the Land Institute probably isn’t ever going to be able to realize their goals to anywhere near the extent they regularly suggest is possible.

Secondly, when he says, perennial crops are “certainly less ecologically damaging,” he’s basically just saying the exact same thing as you said, when you said, “I’ve always admired fruit trees because they don’t require breaking up the earth annually to produce food. Annual crops have created huge problems with erosion…” And when he said, “They’re probably productive enough to found a workable agriculture…” he’s merely acknowledging that perennial agriculture might be able to grow enough calories to feed the world if we used those calories more efficiently, didn’t burn them for auto fuel, didn’t feed so much grain to animals, etc. Whether it would be good to live and eat very differently is a political question – and the author is very much a leftist in those respects – but his article isn’t an argument for what we should or shouldn’t do but rather an argument about what is and isn’t scientifically possible, particularly why the goals of the Land Institute are so unrealistic.

I don’t understand what you find objectionable about that.

Just to clarify, the locally-grown wheat flour I purchased was grown April to August! A 25 lb bag cost $35. You are right that the dream of a hardy, multipurpose perennial grain crop remains elusive, though tantalizing for researchers and west-of-the-Cascades growers.

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I take words rather literally and like writers who do the same, but I’m not upset about the article, although I’m not sure the writer is qualified to judge the ultimate potential of perennial grain crops. Is he a botanist, even?

At any rate, I do find it a bit frustrating when you post a link, claim something like that it is the realistic or valid analysis of the issue instead of doing the work of explaining your opinion. Showing research is one thing, posting someone else’s opinion is another.

I’m not trying to stop you, I’m just stating my opinion.

@Alan I still don’t understand what you find objectionable about that sentence you objected to. How do you think I’m not reading it literally?

Are botanists qualified to judge the ultimate potential of things that have been totally unproven over all of human history? That fact is a significant part of his argument: there are plenty of reasons for mankind to desire perennial grain crops. That no one in all of human history has ever been able to do so with any crop to any significant degree (by comparison to annual crops) is good reason to suspect that there are biological limits standing in the way of that breeding goal. I haven’t read his article that was published in the agronomic journal (although I believe it is accessible for free), but I’ve read some of his other discussion of the subject on his blog, and I think his scientific arguments are more convincing and much more scientifically grounded than the Land Institute’s claims of what’s possible.

Research is only of very tangential value in proving or disproving the feasibility of achieving a goal that no one has ever been able to achieve. But the fact that no one has been able to achieve that breeding goal with any crop ever remains an undisputed fact.

They are more qualified than most to asses the possibility of success in breeding a productive perennial wheat, which is what we are talking about and which you suggested was unrealistic based on the article.

Intentional plant breeding represents only a few moments of the entire history of agriculture. Perhaps the final answer will come through GMO tech.

Thank you for communicating his arguments in your own words. Now we have a discussion.

I’m not as concerned with credentials, but for whatever it’s worth, his article critiquing the Land Institute (not directly but generally) was published in a peer reviewed agronomic journal.

You may not be suggesting otherwise, but plant breeding is at least as old as recorded history, right?

The Land Institute isn’t employing or seeking to employ any GMO tech, is it?

Smaje’s biological argument, though, would presumably apply as much to GMO crops as to conventional ones. To the extent his argument about biological categories is valid, it might be possible to use GMO tech to turn wheat into a perennial, but there would be unavoidable biological trade-offs in doing so.

I am talking about scientific based breeding where thousands of crosses are made in careful and studious evaluations, not anecdotal happy accidents, or simply choosing the seed of the most successful plants and grafting wood from the best trees in an orchard. The latter does lead to rapid improvements but not when dealing with cereal seed. Here’s something on the subject.

The developing world witnessed an extraordinary period of food crop productivity growth over the past 50 years despite increasing land scarcity and rising land values. Although populations had more than doubled, the production of cereal crops tripled during this period, with only a 30% increase inland area cultivated (1).Much of the success was caused by the combination of high rates of investment in crop research, infrastructure, and market development and appropriate policy support that took place during the first Green Revolution (GR). I distinguish the first GR period as 1966–1985 and the post-GR period as the next two decades. Large public investment in crop genetic im-provement built on the scientific advances already made in the developed world for the major staple crops—wheat, rice, and maize—and adapted those advances to the conditions of developing countries (2).

There’s much more in this article about genetic research that led to huge increases in grain productivity.