Are perennial plants the crops of the future?

When I think of "perennials" and "annuals," I think of the plants in my parents' garden: perennial day lilies that bloom each year and geraniums that need to be planted each spring. We're less likely to think about this distinction when it comes to food, but most grains are annuals, requiring planting and harvesting each year.

Mark Bittman's latest column visits Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute. Jackson is exploring the environmental benefits of perennial crops, which make it easier to grow different types of produce side by side:

"Perennial polysystems are one way forward, because they allow us to produce grains, legumes, oils and other foods with a host of benefits. Gesturing across the road from where we sat, Jackson said to me: “That prairie — a prime example of a self-sustaining system — doesn’t have soil erosion, it’s not fossil-fuel dependent, you have species and chemical diversity. If you look around you’ll see that essentially all of nature’s ecosystems are perennial polycultures; that’s nature’s instruction book.” In perennial polycultures, the plants may fertilize one another, physically support one another, ward off pests and diseases together, resist drought and flood, and survive even when one member suffers."

Read the full story here.

Another interesting example of polysystems are forest gardens, which mimic the kinds of diversity one might find in a wooded ecosystem.

Lastly, I can't help but give a shout out to commenter Richard Huber (NYT has closed commenting on this article). He writes:

"Quite frankly I myself will choose the present where here in the US less than 3% of the population works to feed everyone pretty well and frees up the majority of the population to pursue activities such as being newspaper columnists who can write articles about a Utopian, but obviously unattainable world."

Probably more than 3 percent of the U.S. population would be happy to work on an awesome, innovative farm like Jackson's Land Institute--if we can create a system that pays them properly.

Tags: Farming | Food Security

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