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back to article 'Biggest thing in farming for 10,000 years on horizon'

Agro-boffins in America say that mankind could be on the verge of the "biggest agricultural breakthrough in 10,000 years", as researchers close in on "perennial grains". At the moment, most grain grown around the world has to be replanted after every crop. Farming so-called "annual" grain of this sort consumes a lot of resources …

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Paris Hilton

Grass

So... Grass that never needs replanting eh? And these guys are looking for some people with funds... Paris because she knows about having enough seed ;)

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Anonymous Coward

what was i to think

i actually expected another rant on iphone farmville. this is way to serious seeing that i can't wait till pub'o'clock

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Alert

Im no farmer...

But how are you going to get the grains off the perennial? At present you run a Combine Harvester which chops the plant down to the ground and collects the grains, stem and all. With these perennials i doubt theres much chance of them being able to do things that way.

So how will the grains be collected? Manual labour like in fruit/grape/tea leaf picking (good for the employment figures i suppose)? some sort of vacuum suction?

Interesting idea, but a host of challenges still to come, not just the creation of the perennials themselves...

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Harvesting

I would think it would work just like mowing a lawn.

That doesn't seem to do grass any harm, and corn and wheat are (I think) just big grasses.

You might have to set up your combine harvester a little differently, raising the blades perhaps rather than taking the whole stalk.

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It's a grass

So I assume like most (all?) grasses it'll grow from the base, so if you cut it down as normal and then compost the stalks and throw them back on top of the field, another crop will come through.

I mean sheep effectively do the same thing as this to grasslands now don't they and the grass manages just fine.

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Boffin

re: I'm no farmer

provided the roots are intact surely the plant will re-grow?

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Bronze badge

herbaceous perennials

I'm no farmer either but I seem to remember from school that there are two types of perennials. The herbaceous type dies off above ground over winter and just the root system remains, I'd imagine this is the type being proposed rather than the woody type where the plant remains above ground over the winter.

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Boffin

I was

They will leave the grain to grow as it does now. Harvest it in a similar fashion and then wait for it to recover... this would be similar to how hay/silage is made from long perennia grasses. After a time the perennial grain would regrow into a short form to over-winter ready for the following year. this would also offer the opportunity to graze this during the post-harvest months until autumn, keeping the height down while also feeding animals.

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Im no farmer too...

...but I think I have seen fields of grass that didn't need replanting after being mown.

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Coat

Agro Culture

I'd just like to point out that I'm no farmer either.

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me 2

I also did not read the article or the provious post I was just bord and lonley

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Anonymous Coward

I'm not a farmer . .

. . .or Spartacus!

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Rob
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Unhappy

I'm Spartacus...

...but no farmer

(It's Friday, I'm stuck in the office, it's great weather outside and I'm bored and want to join people on the beach with a beer)

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I want to be a farmer

I'm Vice-President of Northamptonshire Young Farmers and a rocket scientist to boot.

But I'd rather be farming if there was any money in it - but there isn't!

Grasses keep most of their nutrients in the roots, so harvesting by normal methods won't unduly affect them. Especially as they will have much of the autumn to regrow - in fact that autumn regrowth might be a problem in colder climbs with die-back in extreme weather.

The perenial growth would be more bushy at the base than the very linear annual types. This combined with the more extensive root structures would make harvesting much easier as it will help stabilise the wet soil of a British summer enough for heavy machinery.

Thinking onwards, the autumn regrowth could be harvested for stock feeding? <patent trolls p*ss off, it's now prior art!>

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Pint

herbaceous perennials

Fuzz,

Your school was better than mine,

I never got taught that, or anything useful.

Now , though I have learned about a system called square foot gardening , which allows me to grow as five (5) times as much in a given area ,than with the traditional garden practice.

That sort of system would help the starving world a bit.

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Governmental funding required

The usual suspects won't be interested - as intimated in the article.

Fantastic idea though.

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@James Hughes 1

That's the obvious and understandable implication. However, there is still a large and active market for perennial grass seed, despite the fact that people don't, in theory, need it.

What I'd like to see is Government/central funding with Open Source style releases of all information at regular stages. However, since there is money to be made, you can bet that someone will try to grab the IP for it, probably by bribing politicians.

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Paris Hilton

I'd like to say

that is my new ambition to become a "dirtboffin". Top stuff ;-)

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Not happening

Lets see, a GM crop that doesn't give Monsanto the power to feck over third world countries? Not going to happen. I predict the tech will get bought, patented and then disappear.

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That depends on who funds it

Some of the better government funded organisations who provide research funding have handy little clauses in their funding terms that allow them to exploit or license the IP if it is not developed or acted upon by the funded company. This would mean that the evil scum at Monshitto could buy up the research to bury it (or rather, make sure it never goes near any soil) but the funding body could promptly license the IP out to anyone else who wanted to use it. All Monsanto would have done is prove the value by trying to kill it (as opposed to trying to kill every plant they don't own the patents on which is their current business model).

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Where does it say GM?

Surely you don't need to mate a field of grass with a shoal of fish to create a different grass. It's why Monsanto wants patents on grass and fish.

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Efficiency?

"Perhaps most tellingly of all, such a field might need as little as 3 per cent of the fertilisers required by annuals"

Really? That implies either a huge proportion of nitrogen fertiliser goes into the basic structure of the plant rather than the bits we eat. Given that we have several thousand years of selective breeding of wheat then that is a little surprising. I would guess that this is only possible if these proposed new perennial grain crops with deep routes can get their nitrogen input that way rather than from pure efficiency (the latter I doubt).

I'd be interested to know what other perennial crops there are that produce large amounts of calories and protein and how there input to output ratio looks. Of the ones I can think of, most are fruit trees or bushes and are not obviously producers of calories on anything like the scale of wheat. Possibly the one exception is the banana. You can get 20 tonnes per hectare (with some fertiliser input) vs about 8 tonnes per hectare of wheat in the UK (albeit you need and awful lot of solar energy to grow bananas). In the case of the potato production can hit 40 tonnes per hectare.

So is the banana the only such perennnial example of a really high yield crop?

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Flame

Or Splice In...

...the genes for the root nodules that hold nitrogen fixing bacteria.

Re: sheep grazing, the cattlemen of the old west hated sheep because they pull the grass plants out of the ground, destroying the range. In fact, it is cattle and related grazing creatures which, by cropping the tops of every plant, gave grasses an evolutionary advantage over other herbs.

Re: Monsanto, their frankengenes have already escaped into the wild, and may pose a threat to life on earth. Their "terminator" technology kills seeds insure that farmers must buy new seed every year. The evilness of Monsanto is a prime example of why genes should not be patentable.

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Re:

The main issues are us only eating a very small portion of the plant, and (primarily) awful soil quality so the fertilizer gets leached out of the soil by rain/irrigation. Bit of a vicious circle that last one - they need to add more NPK which kills just about everything living in the soil, which makes the soil much poorer quality so nutrients are more easily leached out so you need more NPK :o/

By using perennials you can get deeper roots (water it really heavily but rarely) and stronger roots which will hold the soil better preventing leaching. With a bit of clever selection in your GM/breeeding process you can get nitrogen fixing roots which further reduce the amount of chemical fertilizer you need. You also retain ground coverage and so outcompete many weeds reducing herbicide costs etc.

It's a great idea, but not a profitable one

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Anonymous Coward

Sheep

How strange.

I thought cattle pulled the grass out of the ground and sheep nibbled it without pulling the roots out.

I am no farmer, but I have seen sheep eating grass.

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Anonymous Coward

CSIRO

Sounds like something the CSIRO could work on. You know, the government run organisation with the WiFi patent. They mostly do agricultural research, and could possibly be looking for somewhere to spend their newfound wealth.

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Boffin

The man in the white suit

He say's no.

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Not by patents - such tech would never be allowed to be so distributed

I can rather see Africa syaing "not interested in your patent law - we'll have it" if such tech did arise. So unless governments actively stopped distribution of such knowledge in order to support their current industries (as they already do), the oil-company-style patent block approach won't work. Lots of money NOT to research it? That's a well proven oil-company trick too and more likely to succeed.

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Anonymous Coward

Sure sounds like

A fruit tree

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Tech already exists

Plant grass. Put cows on grass. Eat cows. Rub tummy. Mmm, happy tummy.

What, you want the vegetarinoids to WIN?

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It's part of the Burger!

Dude what about the bun! It ain't a burger without the bun!

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Coat

Why not?

"It's perhaps worth noting that there's not as much obvious revenue in perennials for major agro firms as there is in some kinds of annuals - there would be no continual requirement for new seed."

So that is why there are no companies that make grass seed for lawns?

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Black Helicopters

but agro industry not interested...

Surely everyone has by now worked out that the whole push behind GMO is not the publicly touted reasons of better yield, disease resistance etc. but rather the intellectual property approach, the patent portfolios and the need to buy the next crops seed direct from Monsanto and their friends.

So this proposal is even less likely to get any traction (pardon the pun) from the agro interests already in place. In fact I expect quite a lot of lobbying against.

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Stop

I used to be a farmer

From a pretty much endless line of tenant farmers. I worked for my dad for about 20 years, all told. (Sure, I fitted school and other things around it but work was always the first priority).

The developers of this are not interested in feeding Africa or anywhere poor because of something they appear to have overlooked - crop rotation. In order to use monoculture effectively, you need some pretty stonking amounts of not just fertilizer (and Steven Jones above is bang on in doubting these dirtboffins' ideas about nitrogen fixing) but you also need some fairly vast quantities of of herbicide, fungicide and insecticide or else you're looking at a dead or useless crop from blight, pests and weeds in a very short time.

This isn't for subsistence agriculture. To my mind, it's just an attempt to sell more agrichemicals with no viable means of escaping the lockin.

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He....

...is no farmer!

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Joke

So how long before...

...we get to the four-lobed rye/wheat hybrid known as quadrotriticale? Sorry for Trekkie angle (the famous episode "The Trouble with Tribbles"), but it was supposedly a perennial grain.

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No crop rotation?

The first Agricultural Revolution came when experimental farmers figured out crop rotation properly.

If you go to perennial crops, all the problems with having the same thing growing in the same soil for several years running still apply - soil runs short of nutrients at that level, and pests and diseases build up. Sure, you can spray more to put some nutrients back, and you can spray more to try and get rid of the pests and diseases. Except that you're back where you started.

And as regards ecological impact, one thing NewScientist recently pointed out was that if we went back to non-intensive agriculture, we'd pretty much need to strip the entire rainforest to have enough area to farm. Whilst intensive agriculture may not be as eco-friendly locally, it has the benefit that more area can be left unfarmed and relatively unaffected by human contact.

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@ Graham Bartlett

"Whilst intensive agriculture may not be as eco-friendly locally"

What you mean is intensive agriculture totally f*cks up the land locally. Crop rotation has failed, some dick in a suit says "plant maize here" for the third year running. Said maize goes mouldy, again. Gets cut and left to rot down. Field was deep ploughed when? Poor brother-of-farmer tried to plough two years ago and damn near broke his tractor. Go down about a metre you'd need explosives to get through that hard-pack. On top, this leads to ground that need extensive water drainage piping, plus equally extensive watering for the upper level of dirt dries and cracks. To maintain the crop we're just pissing away water. Talking of which: you wanna tell me what that white icky-smelling foamy stuff in the water in the stream is? You wanna tell me why sometimes in the blazing heat the water turns chocolate brown (and things in the pond keel over dead?)? You wanna tell me why I'm seeing bugs that aren't even in the bug books? You wanna tell me why our access road is disintegrating under the load of grain trucks the look like crazy American big-rigs? You wanna tell me about the level of nitrates in the *drinking* water here? [which, today, the EU decided to abandon persuing its record fine] You wanna tell me why the ground is ploughed, turned, harrowed, and sown in a single day? Seriously - one tractor disc-ploughs, one follows behind with a harrow on the front and a seed hopper on the back. Rest the field? Hell no. A field behind us has been left to facellia (looks pretty) because in THREE years it went from grass lee supporting horses and lush green to disaster. Three years of maize grown in rows about a foot apart, with maybe a few inches between the plants. Three years with no goddamn rotation, intensive, intensive, intensive, and now it is in the ECU ward until next year when, no doubt, it'll be either colza or <mock horror> maize. Oh, and as for set asides and wildflowers or anything supporting bees and birds, the wise EU evidently decided such things were unnecessary. I believe our local farmer dispairs, but he's over <x> amount of land so he gets *told* what to plant. No doubt by some w*nker in a suit that's never sat in a tractor in his life.

Can you tell I'm angry? NewScientist may well have said we'd need to plant the rainforests to support the current level of "let's buy a loaf of bread for 20p" in a non-intensive sense, but didn't the dust-bowl episode teach anything? There's only so much hardship you can put the land through, including with spraying crap all over it, before it will dissolve into the most epic of Epic Fails, and then we'll need to tear down those rain forests in order to maintain the current level of arable farming.

I'm not saying we should go back to the likes of horse&plough, the world population probably cannot be supported in that fashion, however the current level of farming "because we can" seems foolhardy and reckless. A modicum of restraint and appreciation for the surrounding environment is, if you ask me, the sensible approach.

Flame icon, 'cos El Reg doesn't have a newkewlur bomb graphic...

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Pint

Crop rotation

personally, I dont use herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers on my grass.

Admittedly Im not trying to eat it :)

But it seems to do well enough. It was there before I bought the property, it is still there 5 years later. It grows, sometimes too fast for my tastes, and I mow it. I do some mulching of the cuttings - mostly recutting the clippings as I make subsequent passes, as the tractor doesnt have a mulching system on it.

Wheat, corn, rice, and rye(?) are at heart grasses. I would expect that at/after harvest mulching the parts of the plants we dont use for food might be a partial or complete answer to increasing herbicide and pesticide use.

Beer - cause what else are all these crops good for :)

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RE: Crop Rotation

That's exactly what a modern combine/harvester does with corn. It chews off the corn stalk, grinds everything that's grindable (pretty much everything but the corn kernels) and blows it out the back, where it eventually gets tilled back into the soil.

That's for seed corn, anyway -- not sure what they do with the edible stuff.

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Silver badge

Lawn grass

produces almost no nutitional value and usually contains a fairly high level of nitrogen fixers such as clover.

You don't get that in cereal crops.

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no nutrients ?

Grazing animals prosper. Ask a cow, or a horse.

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FAIL

Grazing animals

have multiple stomachs. They also vomit up what they've aleady eaten so they can chwe it a second time.

If you can do that then be my guest and eat grass

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Jobs Horns

err... typo

I initally said :

>I would expect that at/after harvest mulching the parts of the plants we dont use for food might be a partial or complete answer to increasing herbicide and pesticide use.

what I meant to say was :

I would expect that at/after harvest mulching the parts of the plants we dont use for food might be a partial or complete answer to ** decreasing ** herbicide and pesticide use.

evil Steve, 'cause it was his fault, I was laughing too hard about the iPhone connectivity problems when you hold it. :)

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Happy

Of course

Of course, the REALLY big thing is the next stage after this - a type of grass that can harvest itself and deliver the finished product straight to the supermarket (wrapped in a biodegradable/edible container from plants that grow around the side of the fields) .

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WTF?

Bit late now but

I'm not a farmer, and neither is my wife.

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tas
Alert

Huge hidden danger

There is one huge consistent danger that is rarely addressed by both over-zealous pioneers and frankly ignorant consumers (easily influenced regulators being thin protection) exacerbating the danger by not thinking around the implications for current, and more importantly, future source of food, drugs and a sustainable ecosystem:

Biodiversity!

If a new biotechnology is so sophisticated that it completely trumps nature in one very specific regard, it is both scientifically and commercially tempting to apply it to the most understood and/or commonly available existing (commercial) strains/stock. However, some of the most useful food and drug properties of a species tends to occur across several strains and across geographies - this is rediscovered time and time again. The core reason is of course the piecemeal allocation of resources by a few powerful hands lends itself to specificity rather than looking at the bigger picture - basic economics.

In the time it takes to apply the new technology to common stock, field test it, roll it out to less risky markets and then finally scale up its use across markets, several or indeed many strains of the increasingly unpopular old stock will have disappeared from use. Also, often new technology brings new processes and it's these that tend to have the biggest impact on older methods which may have had a far smaller (and *known*) impact on the ecosystem.

If you do not believe this happens even with non-revolutionary biotech, just read about the proliferation of common rice, corn and even cattle at the expense of indigenous stock which is often far more adapted to their own ecosystem with completely unique properties.

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Badgers

You Can't Beat Basic Math, Biology and Physics

Don't grains produce their little baby grains precisely because they know they are going to die? And don't they put every bit of their effort into producing those seeds, thus exhausting the energy they have left? I think there is a fundamental problem here that's going to take more than a little Frankensteining in the lab. The sums of the energy still has to add up.

TotalEnergy - EnergyToLiveThroughTheWinter = EnergyHarvested

For all the supposed savings in fertilizer and such there will be a dropoff in yield. The only real benefit I see here is what you'd get from reusing the root system and its ability to reach more water. Its still going to deplete the same amount of water and nutrients it just has a larger buffer (to put it in IT terms) so it can smooth out the peaks and valleys in rainfall better.

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Clover

True -

there is a section of one field I left in clover - didnt mow - for the bees and other creatures that might want it.

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Grenade

just grow hemp again

it has deep roots, fixes nitrogen back into the soil, need less water than corn ...

you can eliminate the need for plastic (polyester) in clothing with it's fiber

it's pulp can be turned into alcohol at 3-4 times the amount per acre than corn

it's seeds are a great nutritious food and produce the best vegetable oil on the planet in good quantity per acre

not a grain or food, but a practical rotational crop that can grow in just about any climate

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