If one takes a peak at the Blogroll here they find the very first blog mentioned belongs to Chris Smaje who writes Small Farm Future. Chris is a recovering academic working a small farm in Somerset, UK with his family. I think the world is a better place for what Chris and team have accomplished both on the farm and in the blog. Making the world a better place is a noble objective for us all.
Of late Chris has been blogging quite a bit over the relative merits of farming annual vs perennial species. It’s more than an academic issue, and I’ve troubled the poor man on more than one occasion with some pedantic quibble or another. But in large measure I do agree with a great deal of his thinking on the subject. At one point I even wondered whether if one plants an annual every year, is it therefore perennial? There is a mountain of agronomic evidence in favor of crop rotation exactly because continuous cropping of the same species on the same ground for many years tends to underperform a rotation. So a modification of the wordplay above – If one plants two annuals in a rotation every year is this rotation perennial? Not in the botanical sense of the annual vs. perennial life history, but in the ecological sense of a perennially recurring ecosystem. Agroecosystem to be specific. Yes, this plays on two different senses of perennial, but I like the stretch of imagination it offers.
The Journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems just published a thirty page commentary Chris wrote that can be found here. Chris takes a measured view of perennial crops and their improvement (breeding) in light of the value they might offer to world agriculture as the human population continues to increase and draw upon the planet’s finite resources. The folks at the Land Institute in Kansas have been working away trying to breed perennial versions of some of our classic agricultural crop species (e.g., wheat). Chris singles out the Land Institute specifically in his paper, and the editor of ASFS was good enough to invite some scientists at the LI to respond. They did, and their reply is here.
As the cultivated soybean (Glycine max)* is an annual plant one might expect I’d side with the annual argument in this debate. And I do feel more comfortable touting the numerous advantages we derive from this remarkable little herb. But I also consider there is great potential benefit from plant breeding in general. If there would ever be some role for perennial crops in geographies now dominated by annuals I expect some healthy effort at plant breeding will make up a substantial piece of the progress to get there. So my personal perspective is that Chris has a fairly strong position, but the folks at LI needn’t be dismissed all together (though some of their argumentation could do with a bit more finesse).
Chris has promised several more posts on his position, and I imagine I’ll continue to engage him concerning the potential value of plant breeding in general – not of perennials specifically as I’ve less personal experience there. It would be very nice if the folks at the Land Institute (or any other perennial plant breeders) would stop by to engage in the conversation as well. Together we might make the world a better place, and where’s the harm in that?
Regardless of how one comes down on the issue of annual vs. perennial crops in our agriculture, the situation will be with us for a very long time to come. Perhaps perennially.
* Glycine max is cross compatible with some perennial Glycine species – though the probability of recovering fertile offspring of such a cross is quite tenuous. Because there is a very minute possibility that a perennial soybean might someday be a reality I quietly root for the perennial plant breeders to blaze a trail that soybean folk might someday follow.