Annual crops—plants such as corn, wheat, rice, and soy that are sown on a yearly basis—dominate our food system. Perennials, on the other hand, are planted once and live for years, producing many consecutive harvests. This reduces the need for soil tillage, a practice that can lead to soil erosion and chemical run-off. Once established, perennial crops have extensive root systems with increased access to nutrients and water deep in the soil. This makes them more drought-resistant, which is especially important as weather patterns become more unpredictable as a result of climate change. And perennials pull more carbon out of the atmosphere and hold onto it longer in their biomass, helping to mitigate the aforementioned meteorological unpleasantness.
Here are 5 perennial food crops we find fascinating:
1) Bananas – Along with their cousin the plantain, bananas are a staple crop throughout much of the tropical and subtropical world. An important source of carbohydrates, a banana plant can remain productive for over 100 years. New research has shown that banana trees can help alleviate the effects of rising temperatures on more sensitive crops such as coffee when the two crops are planted together.
2) Pigeon Pea – Sure, this powerhouse plant produces tasty little beans, but it also can be used to provide firewood, shade, hedgerows, and mulch. Additionally, because it is a legume, its roots support the growth of a bacterium that replenishes soil nitrogen. You can see why this plant is popular among villagers in many parts of Asia and Africa.
3) Olives – There are productive olive trees in the Mediterranean that were around when the New Testament was being written. Olives and their golden oil are delicious and extremely healthful, but be careful you’re getting the real McCoy. According to Tom Mueller in his fascinating book Extra Virginity, a staggering percentage of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the US is anything but—often inferior quality oils doctored to fool our palate.
4) Cacao – Who doesn’t love chocolate? But most people have no idea where chocolate comes from. Chocolate comes from pods on cacao trees. And increasingly, it’s becoming a successful cash crop for small-scale farmers in the developing world. Just be sure to look for Fair Trade labels to make sure those farmers aren’t getting a raw deal.
5) Rice, wheat, corn – Wait, what? Didn’t we say up above that these were annual crops? Well, The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas is working hard to change that. By backcrossing annual strains with their wild cousins, scientists like Wes Jackson and Jerry Glover are creating perennial cultivars they hope will one day produce high yields year after year after year.