Perennial grains: An agricultural revolution?
Most of the problems that farming is struggling with – large emissions of greenhouse gases, soil erosion, nutrient run-off, and overuse of chemicals – could be solved if perennial grains were grown instead of annuals. To contribute to this shift, Axfoundation is collaborating with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in their ground-breaking research at Torsåker Farm, where perennial relatives of wheat and barley are used in the breeding of perennial grains. The genetic material comes from three unique plant-breeding programs, one of them is The Land Institute which has developed the perennial wheat Kernza.
Perennial grains can store more carbon in roots and soil, which may result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation of climate change.
Crops have been improved through breeding for hundreds of years with such a strong focus on high yields that they have lost properties that now are important for adapting to climate change. This makes the food systems of the future vulnerable. All cereal grains grown today in temperate climates are annual. This means that they are planted and harvested all in one year, and this is repeated the next year. In an annual cropping system, the farmers plow the soil regularly which can lead to nutrient losses, erosion, decreased soil quality, and release of greenhouse gases.
Perennial crops, with the ability to grow year after year without replanting or annual plowing, could make a valuable addition to sustainable agriculture. With their deep and well-developed root systems, present all year round, perennial crops protect the soil from erosion and nutrient leakage. Among the core benefits are also their ability to use the full long growing season for carbon uptake for photosynthesis and growth, and the storage of carbon in roots and soil, which may result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation of climate change.
Presently, due to their early stages of breeding and current low yields, grain crops that are perennial are not grown at a large scale. Some plant breeding programs are taking place to address these issues, and Torsåker Farm is today one of the unique sites where perennial grains are developed for the future.
Perennial wheat has been produced by the 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 based on for example number of seeds, seed size and other harvest traits, improved populations have been achieved.
Torsåker farm hosts genetic material from three different plant breeding programs.
Anna Westerbergh (SLU) is the project leader of the perennial grain crop breeding at Torsåker Farm.
Axfoundation supports the efforts to develop perennial grains with the potential to revolutionize agriculture. Torsåker Farm has been established as a long-term field site for perennial grains, with both intermediate wheatgrass and bulbous barley grown in different trials and test plots. The plant breeding program is run by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and the researcher in charge is Anna Westerbergh, senior fellow in genetics and plant breeding at the institution for plant biology at SLU.
The goal is to improve the grains’ agronomic traits, enhance the yield and adapt the plants to thrive in the northern and mid-European climates. The plant breeding program 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 genetic material for the perennial relative of wheat comes from three unique plant-breeding programs: The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania (USA), The Land Institute in Kansas (USA) which has developed the perennial wheat Kernza, and the University of Manitoba (Canada). To date, the cultivation program at Torsåker Farm is the only one outside North America, based on genetic diversity from all three breeding programs and carried out during different climate conditions.
Part of the contribution of Axfoundation is also to identify the commercial potential for the crop in collaboration with great chefs and bakers.
Today, the fields at Torsåker Farm host the world’s most diverse collection of intermediate wheatgrass plants – a perennial relative of wheat. Also, bulbous barley is cultivated for the breeding of the world’s first perennial barley crop.
Developing new crops takes years. A large genetic variation of plants with different geographical origins is evaluated and the best plants are selected and crossed over several plant generations. Being able to study plants at a location over an extended period is essential, and the groundbreaking research at Torsåker Farm has proven successful.
Between 2018 and 2019, the number of intermediate wheatgrass plants planted at Torsåker Farm ten-folded from 3,000 to 30,000. In 2020, based on extensive data from the plants established in 2018, the first selection of the best parent plants of intermediate wheatgrass was made. The plants were cloned and planted out in trials at three separate locations at Torsåker Farm for further evaluation and seed production.
In the fall of 2021 and 2022, an early variant of this perennial relative of wheat was harvested on half a hectare of land. This was an important step which showed that it is possible to thresh the intermediate wheatgrass with a standard combine harvester, currently used in grain cultivation. Axfoundation is now investigating the possibility of scaling up to enable the production of this intermediate wheatgrass as a seed for Swedish farmers.
Part of Axfoundation’s contribution is to identify the commercial potential for the crop in collaboration with chefs and bakers. During an event in 2022, pizzas baked with flour from the perennial relative of wheat were served at Torsåker Farm to satisfied guests.
Torsåker Farm is also the first place in the world where bulbous barley is domesticated and bred into a perennial barley crop. By applying the domestication strategy – that is, repeated selection and crossing of plants with the most desirable traits within a perennial species – harvest yield and quality is being improved along with typical domestication traits such as resistance to seed shattering and uniform ripening.
The perennial wheatgrass has a deeper root system compared to the annual wheat.
From idea to harvest at Torsåker Farm
- Axfoundation visits The Land Institute and an idea of perennial wheat suited to the Nordic climate begins to sprout.
- The research project on intermediate wheatgrass at Torsåker Farm is initiated together with Anna Westerbergh at SLU, and tenant farmer Mats Eriksson at Sättra Farm.
- Planting of 3,000 seedlings of intermediate wheatgrass to study important traits.
- An additional 30,000 seedlings of intermediate wheatgrass are planted. The planting is done in a detailed grid system to study growth, harvest and intercropping 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.
- Plants performing particularly well under Swedish conditions are cloned and 1,200 plants are planted for further evaluation and selection at Torsåker Farm.
- 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 The Land Institute International Initiative, a global collaboration for the development of perennial crops, where Sweden is an important hub.
- The first threshing of intermediate wheatgrass at Torsåker farm. About 0.5 ha is threshed using a standard combine.
- 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 overview of the perennial grain breeding 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.
- Pizzas baked with flour from intermediate wheatgrass are served at an event at Torsåker Farm.
- Two early varieties of this perennial relative of annual wheat are sown with a regular row drilling machine in an open field test plot.
- The next generation of 1,700 seedlings from selected parents is planted.
- Wasabröd joins as a financing partner for the research on genomic selection, a new method for efficient breeding.
- The commercial potential of intermediate wheatgrass is investigated.
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!
Project Manager Future Food+46 (0) 730 92 96 74