Perennial cereals: 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 together with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), is adapting and refining perennial wheat at Torsåker farm, for cultivation in a northern climate. The genetic material comes from three unique plant-breeding programs, one of them is The Land Institute which has developed the perennial wheat Kernza. In the autumn of 2021, the first test harvest on Torsåker farm was threshed.

A field with annual wheat that is plowed immediately after harvest is vulnerable - no living roots bind the valuable soil.

A field with annual wheat that is plowed immediately after harvest is vulnerable – no living roots bind the valuable soil.

The Issue

Almost all grains grown today are annual crops. They are planted from seeds, harvested after spike maturity, and then die all in a single year. Farmers plow and till the soil, which leads to soil nutrient losses and erosion, decreased soil quality and release of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, a newly plowed field is vulnerable – no roots bind the valuable soil and important nutrients are leached and end up in streams where they contribute to eutrophication of the oceans.

The Solution

Perennial plants, on the other hand, do not have to be sown every year and the farmers’ fields do not require annual plowing and tilling. With their deep and well-developed root systems, present all year round, the perennial plants protect the soil from erosion and nutrient leakage. Their large leaf biomass increases carbon uptake and the sequestration of carbon in roots and soil, which result in reduction of greenhouse gases and mitigation of climate change.

Perennial wheat has been produced by domestication of a perennial relative to wheat, (Thinopyrum intermedium). The initial work was done by plant breeders at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, USA. Since 2003, researchers at The Land Institute in Kansas, led by Dr. Lee DeHaan, have further developed a perennial wheat; Kernza®. By choosing the best plants judged by for example number of seeds, seed size and other harvest traits, improved populations have been achieved.

Our Work

Axfoundation supports the efforts to develop perennial wheat and contribute to revolutionizing agriculture. Together with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Axfoundation conducts a larger experiment at Torsåker farm since 2018 on intermediate wheatgrass 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 SLU.

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 farm 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.

Torsåker farm hosts genetic material from three different plant breeding programs.

Torsåker farm hosts genetic material from three different plant breeding programs.

Results

Today, Torsåker farm, Axfoundation’s development center for sustainable food systems, hosts a large genetic variation of perennial wheat. The aim is to develop perennial wheat for cultivation in Sweden, where the large genetic variation of plants with different geographical origins is evaluated. The plants with the best properties are selected and crossed over several plant generations.

In the autumn of 2021, a test crop of 0.5 hectares was harvested for the first time with an ordinary combine. This was an important step in the project where both planting and harvesting until then had been done by hand. The results are promising, the tests show that it is possible to thresh perennial wheat with standard threshing machines that are currently used in grain cultivation. Axfoundation is now investigating the possibility of scaling up to enable the production of perennial wheat as a seed for Swedish farmers.

From idea to harvest

2013

  • Axfoundation visits The Land Institute and an idea of perennial wheat suited to the Nordic climate begins to sprout.

2018

  • The research project on perennial wheat is initiated at Torsåker farm together with SLU and tenant farmer Mats Eriksson at Sättra farm.
  • Establishment of 3,000 seedlings of perennial wheat on Torsåker farm.

2019

  • An additional 30,000 seedlings of perennial wheat are established on Torsåker farm. The planting is done in a detailed grid system to follow growth, harvest and inter cropping with legumes.
  • Axfoundation participates in and supports an international research meeting in Lund in collaboration with The Land Institute.
  • Guests at Human Nature 2019 taste wafer baked with Kernza flour.

2020

  • Plants that performed particularly well under Swedish conditions are cloned and 1200 plants are planted on Torsåker farm for further evaluation.
  • With the support from Axfoundation, The Land Institute won the Food Planet Prize 2020 for its work for sustainable agriculture. The prize money contributed to starting the New Roots International, a global collaboration for the development of perennial crops, where Sweden is an important hub.

2021

  • The first threshing of perennial wheat on Torsåker farm. About 0.5 ha is threshed with ordinary threshing.
  • Selected plants from bulbous barley, a perennial relative of barley that has been evaluated by SLU since 2017, is cloned and established in an experiment at Torsåker farm.
  • Results and lessons from our work with perennial wheat are presented at the UN Food System Summit by Anna Westerbergh, senior fellow in genetics and plant breeding at the institution for plant biology at SLU.
  • The Land Institute visits Torsåker farm to see how the experiments develop under Swedish conditions.
The perennial wheatgrass has a deeper root system compared to the annual wheat.

The perennial wheatgrass has a deeper root system compared to the annual wheat.

Partners

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), The Land Institute, Wasabröd

The research on genomic selection is partially financed by Wasabröd with the ambition to speed up the plant breeding of perennial wheat for Nordic conditions.

Interested in knowing more about Anna Westerbergh – don’t miss the interview on Kernza!

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