Perennial grains: An agricultural revolution?

Most of the problems that farming is struggling with today – large emissions of greenhouse gases, soil erosion, nutrient run-off and over usage of chemicals – could be solved if perennial grains were grown instead of annual. To support this shift, Axfoundation is adapting and refining perennial wheat for cultivation in a northern climate at Torsåker farm. The genetic material comes from three unique plant-breeding programs, one of them is The Land Institute which has developed the perennial wheat Kernza.

Torsåker farm hosts genetic material from three different plant breeding programs, one of which has developed the perennial wheat Kernza.

Torsåker farm hosts genetic material from three different plant breeding programs, one of which has developed the perennial wheat Kernza.

The Issue

Almost all grains grown today are annual crops. They are planted from seed, grow to maturity, produce seed and then die all in a single year. Farmers plow and apply chemicals to the soil to prevent weeds, which leads to soil carbon loss, changes in soil organisms and erosion. Axfoundation supports the efforts to perennialize wheat and revolutionize agriculture. As perennial plants don’t have to be reseeded or replanted every year, they don’t require annual plowing or herbicide application. Their deep roots also protect the soil from erosion and they increase nutrient retention, carbon sequestration and can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Our Work

Together with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Axfoundation conducts a larger experiment at Torsåker farm since 2018 to try to breed perennial wheat to suit the Nordic conditions. The plant breeding focuses on desirable attributes such as high and consistent seed yield, synchronous flowering and seed maturation, and seed retention, also called non-shattering. Large, diverse populations of the crop are grown out at Torsåker farm, and plant breeders select the best individuals for the traits of interest. These individual plants are then cross-pollinated, and the resulting seeds are planted to produce the next improved breeding population. The researcher in charge is Anna Westerbergh, senior fellow in genetics and plant breeding at the institution for plant biology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala.

The genetic material for the perennial wheat comes from three unique plant-breeding programs: The Land Institute in Kansas, USA which has developed the perennial wheat Kernza; University of Minnesota, USA; and University of Manitoba, Canada. Cultivation at Torsåker is the only one based on all these plant-breeding programs, which are carried out in different climatological and geographical regions. Part of the contribution of Axfoundation is to identify commercial potential for the crop in collaboration with great chefs and bakers.

Results

Axfoundation supports the research and development of perennial wheat suited to the Nordic climate. Today, Torsåker farm hosts genetic material from three different plant breeding programs. In 2018, the fields at Torsåker farm had 3,200 perennial wheat plants. In 2019, the figure had multiplied nearly tenfold to 30,000 plants.

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