Ten thousand years ago, China’s ancient inhabitants harvested the grains of wild rice, a perennial grass growing up to 15 feet tall in bogs and streams. The grains were small and red, maturing in waves and often shattering into the water. Their descendants transformed that grain into the high-yielding annual crop that today feeds half the world’s population.
Today, with the climate changing and far more land under intensive cultivation, rice farmers face a less certain future.
An international network of scientists is working toward a radical solution: perennial rice that yields grain for many years without replanting. By crossing domesticated rice with its wild predecessors, they hope to create deep-rooted varieties that hold soils in place, require less labor, and survive extremes of temperature and water supply. Plant breeders have been trying to do the same for wheat, sorghum, and other crops for decades.
With rice, the vision is finally nearing reality. Chinese scientists are preparing to release a variety that they say performs well in lowland paddies and, with more breeding work, could eventually thrive on marginal land as well.
Still, progress is uneven due to differences in genetics, breeding techniques, growing conditions, and research interest for various grains. Perennial wheat — a key crop at the Land Institute — remains decades from yield parity with annual wheat, according to Crews. Perennial maize research is even farther behind. Among major staples, only perennial rice is “approaching reality,” according to the proceedings of the 2013 FAO meeting.
Read full, original article: Perennial Rice: In Search of a Greener, Hardier Staple Crop