To limit erosion, some researchers hope to develop perennial crops

Credit: USDA

But research could take decades, as funding remains low

As winds and heavy rains are sweeping away Iowa’s soil at record rates, some researchers are looking to develop crops that will keep more soil on the ground.

Small amounts of federal money – too little, according to agronomists – have gone towards research of perennial versions of corn, rice, wheat and other crops that don’t need to be planted every year. This would make for less plowing and therefore, less erosion on Iowa cropland, among other environmental perks.

The Des Moines Register reports: 

With deep roots, perennial crops would prevent top soil from washing away, lessening the need for nitrogen fertilizer and reducing the amount of farm chemicals that pollute rivers and streams.

“Before agriculture, 95 percent of the Earth’s ice-free land surface was covered by mixtures of perennial plants,” said Stan Cox, senior research scientist at the Land Institute, which has focused on crops such as wheat because of the center’s location in Kansas. “On land like that, you see virtually no erosion.”

Perennial crops could help save Iowa’s topsoil without replacing the corn and soybean varieties that now dominate the state’s agriculture, Iowa State University agronomist Matt Liebman said.

Researchers say that perennials may be viable in the coming decades:

“Getting to the yields of today’s corn in central Iowa with a perennial corn will not happen quickly, but I do think it is possible,” said Ed Buckler, an Agriculture Department scientist at Cornell University in New York.

“With prior technology, it would have taken 100-plus years. Now, I think we can do it in 20 years with a concerted effort.”

But, with little interest from big agribusiness, that “concerted effort” remains nonexistent. Funding for research remains low:

The USDA has asked Congress for $1 million in fiscal 2012 for perennial grain or sunflower research at its own labs, a slight increase over this year’s funding. In 2009-10, the department provided about $1.5 million in grants for perennial grains research at the Land Institute and a few universities, including Iowa State.

A serious effort to breed perennial corn crops would require spending $1 million to $2 million for five years to identify the genes necessary for perennialism, Buckler said. After that, $10 million to $20 million a year and dozens of scientists would be needed to breed a perennial corn that could eventually be commercialized, he said.

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