Perennial Cereals Provide Ecosystem Benefits
Annual grain crops cover about 70% of cropland globally and contribute a similar portion of calories to meet human dietary needs. Production of these grain crops is associated with soil erosion and degradation, which ultimately limits the sustainability of food production worldwide. In contrast, perennial plants, which live for multiple years, promote soil carbon sequestration, improved soil quality and clean water, and provide other ecosystem services. However, most perennial plants do not produce abundant, easily harvested, human-edible seeds, which makes them poor replacements for existing grain crops. To overcome this challenge, a growing research effort has been launched to develop new types of crops that can live for multiple years and simultaneously produce abundant, harvestable grains suitable for human foods. Although decades of work remain before these crops will become widespread commodities, the first examples are entering the market, where they can be used as unique specialty grains. The potential for these new crops to provide ecosystem services and produce viable yields is attracting attention from farmers, processors, retailers, and consumers. One example is Kernza® perennial wheatgrass grain, which has attracted manufacturers who are willing to invest in product development in advance of a steady supply stream. With the first product (Long Root ale) on store shelves, dozens of farmers are now planting small acreages of the crop. These farmers have the option to sell the grain to an array of breweries, bakeries, and restaurants. This broad-based demand is expected to help expand production to the point that the supply will become steady, and widely marketed perennial grain products will become a reality.