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Tradeoffs between water requirements and yield stability in annual vs. perennial crops

Vico, Giulia, Brunsell, Nathaniel A.
Advances in water resources 2018 v.112 pp. 189-202
annuals, climate, data collection, diet, ecosystem services, grain crops, irrigation requirement, perennials, population growth, roots, soil water, soil water balance, staple crops, water requirement, water resources
Population growth and changes in climate and diets will likely further increase the pressure on agriculture and water resources globally. Currently, staple crops are obtained from annuals plants. A shift towards perennial crops may enhance many ecosystem services, but at the cost of higher water requirements and lower yields. It is still unclear when the advantages of perennial crops overcome their disadvantages and perennial crops are thus a sustainable solution. Here we combine a probabilistic description of the soil water balance and crop development with an extensive dataset of traits of congeneric annuals and perennials to identify the conditions for which perennial crops are more viable than annual ones with reference to yield, yield stability, and effective use of water. We show that the larger and more developed roots of perennial crops allow a better exploitation of soil water resources and a reduction of yield variability with respect to annual species, but their yields remain lower when considering grain crops. Furthermore, perennial crops have higher and more variable irrigation requirements and lower water productivity. These results are important to understand the potential consequences for yield, its stability, and water resource use of a shift from annual to perennial crops and, more generally, if perennial crops may be more resilient than annual crops in the face of climatic fluctuations.