The Future of Agriculture


Contemporary agriculture is largely based on monocultures of annual plants. Endless rows of single crops––corn, bananas, soybeans, wheat––are the norm when you think of today’s farms in many places in the world. However, the cultivation and harvesting cycle of these annual plants can lead to soil erosion problems, changes in the composition of soil, and pests and diseases. The Global Perennial Agriculture Project aims to help provide a sustainable alternative.

The goal of this project is to identify wild, herbaceous perennial grain, legume, and oilseed species that could potentially be domesticated and used in an agricultural system that mimics natural ecosystems, such as a prairie. It is a collaborative effort between the Garden, Saint Louis University (SLU), and The Land Institute. “We’re beginning to realize that we need to rethink how we grow food,” says Dr. Allison Miller, Associate Professor of Biology at SLU and Research Associate at the Garden.

image Allison Miller, Ph.D.
Research Associate, Missouri Botanical Garden
Associate Professor, Department of Biology, Saint Louis University
Bachelor of Science, Botany, Miami University

Master of Science, Botany, Colorado State University

Ph.D., Ecology, Evolution, and Population Biology, Washington University in St. Louis

Still a novel concept today, polycultures that mimic natural ecosystems, such as a prairie, could be the future of agriculture.

“Compared to annual species, perennial plants have deeper roots, which can help reduce erosion, offer greater water retention, and improve ecosystem functions overall,” says Dr. Miller, who is leading the project. She’s also working closely with Garden Associate Curator Dr. Wendy Applequist and Research Specialist Andrew Townsmith, both from the Garden’s William L. Brown Center, to research the ethnobotanical records and toxicity of the identified species. “Knowing if a species has been eaten in the past can help prioritize the candidates for domestication,” says Dr. Applequist.

Botanical Gardens and Agriculture

Botanical gardens have an important role to play in projects like this. After the adoption of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, the Garden fully embraced its role as a world-leading botanical institution to ensure plants play an essential role in addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges—from food security to poverty to climate change. In addition to being a living museum with collections of plants, seeds, DNA, and other plant material, the Garden is a world-renowned research institution. Our library, herbarium, online database TROPICOS, and living collections contain some of the largest, most comprehensive sets of botanical data in the world.

The Garden’s Seed Bank is just one of the many tools available to researchers like Dr. Miller as they work on different projects.

The Garden is also world-renowned for its scientists’ expertise in plant taxonomy. Identifying a species is the foundation of future research, and in this case says Dr. Miller, it is crucial to future breeding and cultivation of potential new crops. “Taxonomy has major applications that are not always understood,” she says, “but it’s the reason we’ve made so much progress in this project.” Using information available at the Garden and through other sources, Dr. Miller and her team have already created a comprehensive list of perennial, herbaceous legumes and grass species that haven’t been domesticated. The next step is to use the ethnobotanical information to generate a list of candidate species that breeders can then choose to cultivate.

Connecting Visitors And Research

Botanical gardens are also an excellent way to connect the general public to this type of research. A small-scale representation of this project will be added as a new display in the George Washington Carver Garden. Using the project’s database, Garden horticulturists chose several species that will not only be aesthetically pleasing but also good representatives of a perennial polyculture. The new display will also tie to Dr. Carver’s work as an extraordinary scientist who greatly influenced 19th and 20th century agriculture and education.


Andrea Androuais, Managing Content Editor