Individual plants are studied and those with the best properties are selected and crossed over several plant generations in order to gradually produce a perennial wheat that gives good yields in a Nordic climate. Photo: Per-Olof Lundquist.
Meet Anna Westerbergh, Associate Professor of Genetics and Plant Breeding at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), in Uppsala. Anna considers that the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to crops today is the perennial grain cereals used for human consumption. Since 2018, Anna is conducting domestication and plant breeding research at the Torsåker Farm on a perennial relative of wheat, for cultivation in Nordic conditions. The plant is a Swedish variant of Kernza®. Anna is also taking innovative steps, together with Axfoundation, to produce a Swedish perennial barley.
We are the first in the world to domesticate and breed the bulbous barley, a perennial relative of annual barley, into a perennial barley crop. The Torsåker Farm and the collaboration with Axfoundation have provided incredibly important conditions for taking these steps.
Perennial crops solve agricultural challenges
The majority of crops grown today are annual. These crops must be restarted at the beginning of each growing season: the soil must be plowed, seeds sown, the crop established and then harvested, but will not grow back again. That is, unless the procedure is repeated and the ground is plowed and sown again. Also, a newly plowed field is a vulnerable field. The annual plants and roots are no longer there to bind the valuable soil, and the important nutrients leach and end up in streams, and later in the Baltic Sea, where they contribute to eutrophication.
Perennial crops, on the other hand, have many benefits. They bind more carbon into the soil and at the same time contribute to reduced energy and time consumption for the farmer who does not need to sow and plow every season. Additionally, perennial crops cope better with the effects of climate change as their deeper and larger root systems improve the uptake of nutrients and water from the soil and make the plants more tolerant to drought.
The perennial wheatgrass has a deeper root system compared to the annual wheat.
Plant breeding for a Nordic climate
Maria Lundesjö, Project Manager Future Food at Axfoundation inspects perennial wheat together with researcher Per-Olof Lundquist at SLU.
According to Anna Westerbergh, crops have been improved through breeding for hundreds of years with such a strong focus on high yields that they have lost properties that are important for adapting to climate change. It is these properties, among others, that the researchers at SLU, together with Axfoundation, are now looking for in individual plants, through experiments with perennial wheat and barley.
We simply use the great genetic variation that exists in the perennial wild relatives of wheat and barley, as they grow in different environments around the world, but not in Sweden and northern Europe. What we do in practice is that we study each individual plant, of the several thousand plants that we have planted in the trial fields at the Torsåker Farm. We then select the plants that have the very best properties, such as the best regrowth from year to year and the largest and highest number of seeds. These become parents to the next generation of plants. With this approach, we adapt and change a wild plant to become cultivable and give a good harvest in the Nordic conditions. In other words, we domesticate it.
Practical research that has yielded results
The initial work to produce a perennial wheat was conducted by plant breeders at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, USA, after which researchers at The Land Institute in Kansas further developed a perennial wheat, the so-called Kernza®. What is now being carried out at the Torsåker Farm by Anna Westerbergh and her research colleagues Per-Olof Lundquist and Mohammad Sameri, is to adapt a perennial wheat for cultivation in the Nordic countries, through plant breeding.
The best parent plants of perennial wheat were cloned and planted out in trials at three different locations on Torsåker farm in 2020. Photo: Linda Prieditis
We adapt the perennial wheat so that it can withstand frost and cold climate, and can survive and give a good harvests for many years under our climatic conditions. We are also looking for plants that will flower and produce mature seeds during the short growing season in Sweden with its exceptionally long days.
Their meticulous work has yielded results. Based on extensive data, the first selection of the best parent plants of perennial wheat in 2020 was made. The plants were cloned and planted out in trials at three different locations at the Torsåker Farm. Seeds from the crosses between these plants were harvested by hand from individual plants last year and seedlings from these seeds will be planted this summer, for selection of the next parent generation. The same procedure is followed with the bulbous barley, but the starting material they generated through evaluation of a high number of perennial species related to barley.
We are now working on the third breeding cycle of perennial wheat and the second breeding cycle for bulbous barley in our plant breeding programs. Through this work, important steps have been taken in the development of perennial varieties for cultivation in Sweden and northern Europe. By introducing additional methods in the plant breeding programs such as genomic selection, we estimate that the first variety will be available for propagation and test cultivation in a few years.
Anna and her research group are also interested in the co-cultivation of perennial cereals and legumes, and these field trials were planted at the Torsåker Farm in 2019. In parallel with the plant breeding work, an early variant of perennial wheat is also being cultivated on half a hectare of land. This field was harvested with a combine harvester in the autumn of 2021 and it is demonstrably possible to thresh the crop with ordinary machines.
Torsåker farm offers new opportunities
Torsåker farm is Axfoundation's center for the future food. Photo: Anders Johansson
Breeding and domesticating crops takes time. Years. Plenty of space is also needed for researchers to be able to cultivate, harvest and evaluate in a scientifically correct way. By cloning plants and planting them out in three different fields, the researchers from SLU can study how genetically identical plants are affected by growing at different locations. This is the importance of the Torsåker Farm, says Anna.
Being able to study plants at different locations over a long period of time as part of the entire research approach is incredibly valuable for the plant breeding program. We have been able to get this far with the perennial wheat because we have been able to establish populations with a large genetic variation and study them through field trials at the Torsåker Farm. What we are doing here is not a test cultivation, but groundbreaking research.
At the Torsåker Farm, Axfoundation brings together researchers and practitioners from the entire food chain. The researchers’ ‘and farmers’ results from the field can be taken straight to processing at the Ladugården test kitchen, where chefs, processors and wholesalers take over the process to test bake, cook and verify innovations before they are put on the market. It is precisely this network and these opportunities for collaboration that Anna Westerbergh highlights as a unique advantage.
The network and the great knowledge that colleagues at Axfoundation have is really valuable. It teaches us as researchers to think about how we can spread our message to different actors in society.
I am inspired every time I go to the Torsåker Farm! As a researcher you often sit in your office and struggle with everything from funding, to plans where research should go – but here I get energy from collaborating, and working together towards a common goal – that is, sustainable agriculture and society. I am convinced that through good cooperation we will reach the goal much faster and in a much more joyous way!
During the event Människans Natur 2022 at Torsåker farm, pizzas baked with flour from perennial wheat were served.
Anna Westerbergh has far-reaching plans on how to take steps from a test, to a reality. Together with Axfoundation, the possibilities of establishing an early variety of Swedish perennial wheat are being investigated by a handful of farmers who can test cultivate on their farms and evaluate it in practice. Already now, through Axfoundation, she has contacts with bakers to be able carry out tests on quality and product development.
Vi är i ett skede just nu där vi är redo att fokusera på ytterligare egenskaper i vetet. Redan i urvalet av plantor kan vi studera kvalitet kopplat till bakegenskaper och näringsinnehåll. Genom kontakter hos Axfoundation så finns bra vägar för tester i praktiken i bageriet.
Anna wants to revolutionize the world
Anna Westerbergh is enthusiastic in how she talks about the research, the investment in the Torsåker Farm and the passion for sustainable agriculture.
I have always conducted research with both my heart and my head. I can not do research on something that I do not think is important in the long run. And that is what we, the colleagues at Axfoundation, my research group and I share. We encourage each other, and share different thoughts and perspectives, and it increases our willingness to fight on to the next step.
Associate Professor of Genetics and Plant Breeding at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala
So what do you hope for in the future?
Of course, I want to continue to develop the plant breeding programs on perennial barley and wheat. In the long run though, I want to revolutionize the way we grow and produce our food so that it is carried out in a sustainable way.
Here, we get support in a purely practical way. We don’t just want pats on the back, but we also want stakeholders who are willing to support and invest in the long term. It is easier to find someone who wants to invest in the next step when something has already been developed, but it is difficult to find long-term support at the beginning of a process. This is precisely the practical support we get here at the Torsåker Farm.