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Can agriculture shift to perennial grain crops?

Rootsystems of traditional wheat and perennial wheatgrass, showing the larger roots of the perennials. Photo.
Traditional wheat on the left, perennial wheatgrass on the right, with a comparison of growth over time.

Perennial crops have the potential to reduce the need for ploughing and pesticides, which in turn can lead to reduced soil degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, a unique research infrastructure that has the potential to transform agriculture was inaugurated by the Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science and LUCSUS, in collaboration with SLU Alnarp.

The new facility, funded by the European Research Council (ERC Advanced Grant) and Formas, is focused on exploring perennial agricultural crops and their potential to transform modern agriculture. Here, researchers will measure the exchange of greenhouse gases between the atmosphere and agriculture in real time in two parallel cropping systems. One of these systems uses the newly domesticated cereal KernzaTM, also known as Intermediate wheatgrass, while the other follows a conventional crop rotation with crops such as wheat, sugar beet, barley and oilseed rape.

A new cereal

The research facility will play an important role in understanding the ecosystem services and climate benefits that perennial crops can provide. The new cereal Kernza, or Intermediate wheatgrass, is representing the perennial crops:
- Kernza has a root system many times larger than wheat (see figure), which has several ecological benefits. From a climate point of view, we are looking in this project at carbon storage in the soil, which can be increased both by the plant and also by reduced ploughing. Perennial crops like KernzaTM can also help reduce erosion, cope better with drought and improve soil structure," says Jonas Ardö, Professor of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science at Lund University.

Climate benefits and ecosystem services

The research facility will play a key role in understanding the ecosystem services and climate benefits that perennial crops can provide.

- Kernza has been bred since the 1970s, so it is a short time compared to thousands of years of deliberate breeding. So far, the harvest of Kernza is about one tenth of what wheat yields, but development is rapid and in a few decades it is expected to have improved" says Jonas Ardö.

The facility was officially inauggurated in Alnarp on October 26, 2023

Read more about the project:

Read more on the department web Perennial project

 Descriptions and info i the Research portal: 

Capturing Carbon in Perennial Cropping Systems

 Is there a PERENNIAL future of agriculture?