This post was originally published on January 13, 2017 and updated on May 20, 2020.
Move over kale, there’s a whole class of edibles looking to take over your trendy food title. Perennially grown foods are getting a lot of attention. Plants, such as rhubarb, asparagus, onions, berries, grapes and yams can deliver bushels of nutritious food with little to no effort. Researchers say these crops can also help feed our world with significantly less environmental impact than some other, more common fruit and vegetable plants. One food group that is leading the way is edible oils. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says 40 percent of vegetable cooking oils, such as olive oil and Malaysian certified sustainable palm oil, already come from perennials.
The promise of perennial plants
Perennials, unlike annuals, do not need to be planted every year. That makes them easy for gardeners and good for Mother Earth, too. Because of their extensive root system, perennial crops minimize erosion. They also require less water than annual plants and help create a stable ecosystem. The FAO praises perennial food crops because they require less fertilizer, which also supports a healthy water system.
Perennial crops also provide an environment where native animals can thrive, without fear of their habitat being destroyed for annual replanting. They are generally a lot more productive, too. That’s why perennial foods hold such promise for our world’s food supply.
Malaysian oil palm is a model for perennial food crops
Malaysian oil palm farmers already experience these benefits on their plantations. Oil palm trees grow for thirty years, and produce oil-rich fruit year-round. Other vegetable oil sources, such as corn, soybean and canola need to be planted and harvested annually. Oil palm plantations use just a tiny fraction of the world’s farmland, just 0.23 percent, yet produce a tremendous amount of oil. Per acre of land, oil palm produces 11 times more oil than the soybean, and seven times more than canola. Palm oil is also non-GMO, and requires fewer pesticides and less energy than these other oils.
In Malaysia, more than 260 species of plants and animals reside in or near the decades-old oil palm plantations. Snakes and barn owls act as eco-friendly rodent control. These animals coexist with other animals, such as orangutans and kingfishers.
The perennial food movement
Researchers worldwide are studying additional eco-friendly foods. University of Minnesota scientists, for example, are helping to develop perennial wheat crops. “That’s been the ‘holy grail’ talk for years,” said farmer Richard Magnuson in a Star Tribune article. The University has launched the Forever Green Agriculture Initiative to develop a series of perennial crops for Midwestern farmers. Agronomist Don Wyse, the initiative’s leader, believes this next generation of food crops will be highly productive and offer environmental benefits, such as improved water quality and habitat for native animals.
You can join the movement by adding more perennial foods to your diet. Perennial wheat isn’t readily available yet, but wild rice, bananas, cacao (chocolate), artichokes, figs, apples and Malaysian certified sustainable palm oil may all be found at your local grocery store.
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