Washington, June 25 (IANS): Eco-friendly perennial grain crops, which grow with less fertiliser, herbicide, fuel, and erosion than grains planted annually, could be available within decades, says a study.
"Perennial grains would be one of the largest innovations in the 10,000 year history of agriculture and could arrive even sooner with the right breeding programme," said John Reganold, professor of soil science, Washington State University (WSU).
A perennial is a plant that lives for more than two years as opposed to annual that does not live more than a year.
Reganold led the study with Jerry Glover, soil scientist at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.
"It really depends on the breakthroughs. The more people involved in this, the more it cuts down the time," Reganold said.
The study is a call to action as half the world's growing population lives off marginal land at the risk of being degraded by annual grain production.
Perennial grains, say the paper's authors, expand farmers' ability to sustain the ecological underpinnings of their crops.
"People talk about food security, that's only half the issue. We need to talk about both food and ecosystem security," Reganold added.
Perennial grains have longer growing seasons than annual crops and deeper roots that let the plants take greater advantage of precipitation.
Their larger roots, which can reach 10 to 12 feet, reduce erosion, build soil and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. They require fewer passes of farm equipment and less herbicide, key features in less developed regions.
By contrast, annual grains can lose five times as much water as perennial crops and 35 times as much nitrate, a valuable plant nutrient that can migrate from fields to pollute drinking water and create "dead zones" in surface waters, says a university release.
"Developing perennial versions of our major grain crops would address many of the environmental limitations of annuals while helping to feed an increasingly hungry planet," Reganold said.