Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Agriculture in many developing countries is becoming unprofitable because of many factors like farmer poverty, small land holdings, urban immigration, increasing cost of inputs, dwindling water availability, unpredictable weather changes etc. In countries like India farmers are desperate enough to consider suicide as an alternative to wreched existence under humiliating conditions, in spite of massive agricultural subsidies from the state exchequer. While land consolidation and integral farming regime can alleviate this situation to some extent, political, social and cultural environment do not permit such revolutionary changes during the present generation. What is the alternative to this "catch 24" situation? If dreams can come true, some scientists are envisaging development of perennial crops that can yield staples year after year in stead of seasonal plantation with short term crops. How far this is feasible is any body's guess.

"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 Departmentscientist 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." The idea of replacing annual food crops with perennials has long been on the fringe of agricultural research, largely confined to a private facility in Kansas called theLand Institute. But Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, a lead author of the nation's organic food standards during a previous stint at the USDA, has been talking up perennial grains as a promising way to produce food with less environmental impact. "We're interested in the development of perennial grains -- big seeds, high yields," she said at a recent food-policy conference in Washington. "These plants with deep roots to hold the soil in place and pick up water and nutrients year-round could reduce the demand for water over the more typical annual grain that produce a big harvest but die each year." She noted that the USDA is financing some initial research into the genetic basis of perennialism and developing the genetics for breeding perennial crops. However, perennial crops have little appeal to today's agribusiness, including seed giants like Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto. "They depend on selling a lot of seed every year," said Bill Beavis, interim director of Iowa State University's Plant Sciences Institute. "I'm not sure the perennials ever catch up just because they don't have the resources" in terms of research funding. So far, the USDA is spending nothing close to what scientists say the research needs. An article last year in the journal Science co-authored by Buckler and scientists at the Land Institute and elsewhere, said perennial grain crops could be ready in 20 years but that it would take a monetary commitment comparable to what the government is now putting into developing biofuel crops".

It will be a fantastic development that can have long term impact and there is a need for concerted efforts internationally to strive for it. It is true that stiff resistance by multinational seed companies with monopoly over seed supply can derail or delay the process of evolving such perennial plants but if there is a will there is a way to over come such hurdles. Countries like India will be benefited immensely if perennial plants, with very little inputs to grow and produce good yield of crops like paddy, wheat and oil seeds, become available one day. Private research institutions cannot be expected to invest in this area and it becomes the responsibility of the GOI to undertake such path-breaking developmental programs by the public funded agencies like ICAR.


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