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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Editorial Response Some Thoughts on Perennial Grains and Polycultures to the Necessity and Possibility of Perennial Grain Production Systems by Jerry Glover Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems

Author
item Wilhelm, Wallace

Submitted to: Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: November 15, 2005
Publication Date: December 15, 2005
Citation: Wilhelm, W.W. 2005. Editorial response some thoughts on perennial grains and polycultures to the necessity and possibility of perennial grain production systems by jerry glover renewable agriculture and food systems. Renewable Agriculture and Food System 20: 2-3.

Interpretive Summary: Editorial response by Wallace Wilhelm: Some thoughts on perennial grains and polycultures The paper by DeHaan et al. in this issue highlights advantages of perennial grain systems from the standpoint of environmental integrity and soil, water and air quality. They discuss some of the complexity of developing a perennial grain crop, with emphasis on competition for photosynthate within the plant to produce both seed and perenniating organs. Cox et al. and Crews, also in this issue, extend the discussion of perennial grain systems and add the potential need to increase diversity to the system by using mixtures of cultivars or species to manage nutrient availability and diseases. These papers promote the concept of grain production systems that do not require annual planting, tillage and substantial quantities of fertilizer and fossil-fuel-based chemicals to satisfy our demand for low-cost, high-quality sources of dietary carbohydrate and fiber. Although perennial systems are nature’s model for environmental sustainability, these systems may not be without problems from a food and fiber production prospective. As Dr. Lee stresses in his short commentary(below), for identifiable reasons, humans have found annual grains to be more suited to providing the food and feed we need. In addition, the relatively short generation time and great diversity of traits in these annual species has allowed us to exploit annual grains to better provide food needs. Throughout the development of annual grains, cultural practices, uses and marketing systems have evolved in concert. We currently have an elaborate system of production, marketing and processing that is tuned toward annual, single-species grain crops. The current system, although dynamic, appears traditional, appropriate and sustainable to many of those producing and processing the grain, as it does to most of the consumers of the products of the system. Key problems that resist quick acceptance of a perennial grain are: (1) sinks competing for photosynthate within the perennial plant (seeds and perenniating organs); (2) if multiple species are needed for nutrient or disease management, as suggested by Crews and Cox et al., harvest and grain marketing systems incapable of coping with more than one species at a time; and (3) concern that the grain production capacity of the perennial systems will not have a yield potential to meet food and feed needs of world population. These points and others are developed and explained in detail in a paper entitled Perils of production with perennial polycultures by R.S. Loomis, slated for publication in the next issue of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. The perennial grain system model nicely addresses several of the burning issues for agriculture and society: the need for maintaining the quality of our soil, water and air resources; and our enormous dependence on the finite supply of fossil fuels and the aligned problems of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. However, at present, the proposed systems fall gravely short in addressing another crucial issue, feeding the world population. Humankind has adapted and enhanced the productive potential of traditional (annual) grains for centuries and it may be unfair to demand equal production potential from the newly proposed perennial systems. However, for the concept to remain viable, proponents of perennial (and maybe polyculture) grain systems need to address these criticisms effectively and show substantial progress, both in theory and practice, toward production potential near that of the grains they espouse to replace. If the question of productive capacity is addressed adequately and small demonstrations of perennial grain systems show promise, issues with market, traditional cultural practices and processing will be overcome by the agricultural and food production and processing ind

Technical Abstract: Editorial response by Wallace Wilhelm: Some thoughts on perennial grains and polycultures The paper by DeHaan et al. in this issue highlights advantages of perennial grain systems from the standpoint of environmental integrity and soil, water and air quality. They discuss some of the complexity of developing a perennial grain crop, with emphasis on competition for photosynthate within the plant to produce both seed and perenniating organs. Cox et al. and Crews, also in this issue, extend the discussion of perennial grain systems and add the potential need to increase diversity to the system by using mixtures of cultivars or species to manage nutrient availability and diseases. These papers promote the concept of grain production systems that do not require annual planting, tillage and substantial quantities of fertilizer and fossil-fuel-based chemicals to satisfy our demand for low-cost, high-quality sources of dietary carbohydrate and fiber. Although perennial systems are nature’s model for environmental sustainability, these systems may not be without problems from a food and fiber production prospective. As Dr. Lee stresses in his short commentary(below), for identifiable reasons, humans have found annual grains to be more suited to providing the food and feed we need. In addition, the relatively short generation time and great diversity of traits in these annual species has allowed us to exploit annual grains to better provide food needs. Throughout the development of annual grains, cultural practices, uses and marketing systems have evolved in concert. We currently have an elaborate system of production, marketing and processing that is tuned toward annual, single-species grain crops. The current system, although dynamic, appears traditional, appropriate and sustainable to many of those producing and processing the grain, as it does to most of the consumers of the products of the system. Key problems that resist quick acceptance of a perennial grain are: (1) sinks competing for photosynthate within the perennial plant (seeds and perenniating organs); (2) if multiple species are needed for nutrient or disease management, as suggested by Crews and Cox et al., harvest and grain marketing systems incapable of coping with more than one species at a time; and (3) concern that the grain production capacity of the perennial systems will not have a yield potential to meet food and feed needs of world population. These points and others are developed and explained in detail in a paper entitled Perils of production with perennial polycultures by R.S. Loomis, slated for publication in the next issue of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. The perennial grain system model nicely addresses several of the burning issues for agriculture and society: the need for maintaining the quality of our soil, water and air resources; and our enormous dependence on the finite supply of fossil fuels and the aligned problems of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. However, at present, the proposed systems fall gravely short in addressing another crucial issue, feeding the world population. Humankind has adapted and enhanced the productive potential of traditional (annual) grains for centuries and it may be unfair to demand equal production potential from the newly proposed perennial systems. However, for the concept to remain viable, proponents of perennial (and maybe polyculture) grain systems need to address these criticisms effectively and show substantial progress, both in theory and practice, toward production potential near that of the grains they espouse to replace. If the question of productive capacity is addressed adequately and small demonstrations of perennial grain systems show promise, issues with market, traditional cultural practices and processing will be overcome by the agricultural and food production and processing industry. The opportunity to provide food, feed and fiber in a more sustainable manner is too great to overlook, but we must produce food and feed for today if we are to survive to meet and overcome the problems of tomorrow.

Last Modified: 12/26/2014
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