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From Annuals to Perennials

Permaculture is all about mimicking natural systems – patterning our agriculture and other critical human needs on the symbiotic processes we observe all around us. If you compare nature’s methods we see that stable natural plant systems are polycultures, and perennial, whereas our modern industrial agriculture is the exact opposite – largely being monocultures and annuals.

But, imagine if the annual crops we rely on the most, grains and pulses, could be made to grow perennially instead. No end/beginning of year ploughing, no annual replanting, etc. It would save enormous amounts of time and energy on cultivation and planting, and allow soils to remain undisturbed for longer, with immense benefits to soil life, structure, organic matter and carbon content.

The video below highlights this out-of-the-box permaculture thinking. The Land Institute in Kansas has been working solidly on engineering annuals into perennials (by way of natural plant breeding – not by gene gun). They take ancient wild, perennial varieties of grains, and cross them with their modern annual counterparts, and repeat, and repeat, until they end up with a harvestable product from a plant that doesn’t have to be resown every year. Or at least that’s the aim. This is still a work in progress, but their purpose is "to develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops".

The implications/benefits of this are hard to exaggerate – both in terms of energy/time expenditure for farmers, but also in terms of the health/structure of soil that doesn’t have to be cultivated nearly so often and the potential biodiversity (stability) that could be achieved with mixes of these polycultures.

With populations growing, the gap between nature’s way, and ‘our’ way, needs closing. We must find ways to eat that don’t undermine the very resources of soil, water and air that that eating depends on. This is the kind of ‘genetic engineering’ that I can endorse, and is the kind of research for the public good that should be aided by all governments that give a hoot about the future.

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  1. A few weeks a go i was fantasizing about perennializing annuals with a friend of mine. We thought that the only way to do it would be through GM crops. Although it seems that my fantasy has been realized something about this makes me feel very uncomfortable.

  2. Hi Noam – you do realise that the methods of perennialising are not through the reductionist science type of genetic engineering, but is through natural plant breeding techniques that have been used for millennia? What makes you feel uncomfortable?

  3. I also have some concern re changing too many annuals to perennials, in that, while not GM-monstrous, it’s reason is anthropogenic, human-needs-centred, like our species has been since year dot….instead of whole eco-system centred, with us as just one partner species co-operating with all others.

    This may be over-purist, but why change the balance of nature.
    A pristine rain forest (our permanently-productive healthy model according to Mollison) has plenty of both perennials and annuals. Does any Ecology guru in our network know the actual balance, or proportions? (Is the question important, or is it just a western obsession with analysis, rather than acceptance and respect for what Suzuki described in his book title as The Sacred Balance.)

    THe dead remains of annuals after seeding create an annual feast of diverse food for many species, like rotting roots for worms, fungi, bacteria, and diverse mulch material.
    Variety, diversity, creates many opportunities for mutual support.

    I agree the monocultural chemical farm lands would sure be a lot more sustainable with lower-input perennials, but that is a step back towards at least a degree of mono-culture, compared to natural diversity.

    Also, we haven’t been told whether the newly developed “perennial ex-annuals” varieties will be patented, strengthening techno-dictatorship, but current business thinking is that those scientists involved would want a good reward from their many years of experimentation.
    I wonder who’s funding them?

    Permaculture shows how the natural eco-system can feed us if we only humble ourselves to use its high diversity, patterns and balances.
    That’s the real challenge- for enough of a critical mass of people to radically re-connect with “Mother” earth (as Indigenous tribes teach their children to call her, with reverence), to supply their needs in that natural biodiverse way.

    I have similar concern re too much use of leguminous
    plants to enrich soil, as often pushed in Permaculture…that is, if such “green manure” practice done too widely leads to extinction of many wonderful plants that thrive and give their best benefits, in poorer soils….like some of the common aromatic herbs, and many weeds, both known-useful and unknown-useful…..and many Aussie natives with low-phosporous, low-water

    I agree with more green manure, but managed so residues are not draining freely into the creeks and wilderness/bush.
    Some LandCare groups here have mulched newly-planted natives on Lake Macquarie shores with green fresh grass clippings…leading to eutrophication and possible toxicity…karma back to us from Gaia, saying take more care.

    Tom Toogood
    phone Aus 02-49207763

  4. NO!

    I am OPPOSED to all forms of genetic modification of plants and the biosphere. This is an insult to people who are care about balance in our environment.

  5. Answering my own question re. the proportion of perennials to annuals in the natural eco-system, I’ve now read the Land Institute’s information, and the suggested proportion seems 80% perennial, at least in the USA.
    But maybe it differs from one ecosystem or bioregion to another, or season to another…..e.g. in the West Australian bush(wilderness) Springtime brings a huge bursting forth of annual wildflowers, blanketing the ground, a remarkable visual panorama.
    Of course there are also perennials flowering.

  6. Finaly, a sustainable way to feed pigeons! This may address the impact of agriculture on the environment, but what of agriculture’s impact on human health? The foods we evolved to eat have been perennial all along. Now, if the Lands Institute can breed human beings with gizzards and no need for omega 3 fatty acids, we’ll be all set!

  7. In the 1920s, J. Russell Smith showed in his “Tree Crops; A Permanent Agriculture”, through traveling the world and visiting many diverse cultures, that trees are the perennial grains. Their nutritional analysis is very similar to the annual grains we grow and can substitute them. Hickories, Pecans, Walnuts, Oaks, Hazelnuts, etc. They also provide fodder for livestock. Check it out.

  8. Although the methods used are natural, its quite a jump to take a species from annual to perennial with all of the annuals traits. I doubt that it would last long before some insect decimates this new breed.
    Why not increase the yields of perennials by breeding and grafting instead, look at all of the health impacts of a grain fed population. We are going to have to give up this addiction to grains sometime.

  9. Grain based diets promote excessive population growth. I can’t see how this can be sustainable.

    I also feel uncomfortable about ‘forcing’ annuals to become perennials (and I understand the differences between plant selection and GE). There is a line being stepped over here.

    This seems to be about supporting humans to carry on as usual but in a ‘green’ way, not a sustainable way.

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