Perennial cereals offer could be answer to extreme weather

Perennial cereals could be the answer to more extreme weather patterns, according to one researcher investigating their potential in a changing climate.

With large parts of the country currently under water due to downpours and melting snow, it is a nervous time for farmers.

“The good news is that UK wheat varieties are fairly tolerant of waterlogging in the winter once a crop is established,” says Edward Dickin, a lecturer at Harper Adams University. “But that is of little comfort for the many farmers who have been unable to drill because the land is too wet to travel on, or those where the seeds drowned before they could germinate.

“Growth rates of waterlogged crops over winter will be slow (around half), but the plants survive by forming air spaces in their roots called aerenchyma, which keep the root tips alive by transporting oxygen from the shoot.

“Unfortunately, if the field is flooded for any length of time and the shoot is under water, plants will die.”

Deluged fields are becoming an increasingly common sight across the country. Last year swathes of arable crops were left under inches of water during what was the UK’s second wettest year on record.

“Summer waterlogging, as occurred in 2012, is much more damaging as the plants are growing more quickly and the crop is at key stages in development for yield formation,” adds Dr Dickin.

But he believes perennial cereals could be the solution. Perennial plants live for several growing seasons and, therefore, need not be replanted after each harvest. As a result, they are more resilient and can stand environmental extremes.

Scientists have argued that perennial versions of today’s cereal crops could be developed and these could make cereal growing more sustainable.

However, there are fears that with perennial grain crops in the early stages of development, it may take years before yields equivalent to annual grains are achieved.

“I believe a contributing factor to the problems last autumn was that the roots of annual wheat die as the crop ripens, so all the rain since late July has gone into the soil with no roots to extract it until a crop cover can be established. Of course the wet conditions hamper establishment, so preventing a cover crop being established.

“A perennial cereal would mean that the field is continuously covered and its longer lifespan would also allow roots to grow deeper and increase drought resistance.”

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