Potential Breakthroughs in Crop Production

Published on: 14:31PM Oct 07, 2016

In the face of studies which suggest that global crop production are likely to decline due to the effects of climate change at the same time that an increasing global population--reaching as much as 9.7 billion by 2050-demands more food, researchers around the world are trying to develop new varieties and identify new cultivation practices which can make crop production more resilient to changing weather patterns and other environmental stresses.


Although this research focus is relatively recent, and the time lag between developing an innovation and successful adoption of that innovation in the marketplace can take decades, there are already some promising breakthroughs on the horizon.  This work is being undertaken in a variety of environments around the world--in laboratories run by large multinationals, national agricultural research systems, agricultural-focused universities, non-profit institutions, and eventually in fields across the world, in places like Kansas, Yunnan province in China, and Malawi.  


Some of the development of new climate-resilient varieties is being done with the latest scientific techniques, like the new CRISPR/Cas9 technology which allows scientists to modify a given plant species by editing its existing genetic structure rather than the previous generation of genetic engineering techniques, which involved inserting genetic material from other sources.  Other work is being done that involves far less sophisticated technology.


For example, work to develop crop varieties and cultivation practices that can cope with soil affected by salinization is underway at a number of sites, especially in countries such as Australia and the United States where saltwater intrusion has become a problem in recent years.  With the sea level increases expected from climate change, this problem could become more widespread over time.  A lab operated by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Riverside, California has a project underway that is examining various management practices in this area, while researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia are using marker-assisted breeding and genetic engineering to develop salt-resistant varieties of wheat and other crops for their farmers in coastal areas affected by saltwater intrusion, by trying to modify the osmotic process through which plants absorb water.  Similar work is underway in India, using both conventional and biotechnology breeding techniques.  The work is not far enough along yet to produce commercially viable salt-resistant or -tolerant crops.


Over the last few centuries, the vast majority of plants grown for food purposes have been sown,  grown, and harvested over the course of a single season, with the cycle repeated again the following year.  Farmers grow these annual staple crops because that is what they are accustomed to, and the only crops for which they can reliably obtain seed.  However, at a few research institutions around the world, research has been underway for 30 years to try to develop perennial crops that can provide yields comparable to those from annual crops but would be much more beneficial to the environment because of reduced need for fertilizer, improved water holding capacity and reduced soil erosion due to more extensive root systems. Chinese researchers at the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences are close to releasing a variety of perennial rice that they assert can generate yields comparable to annual crops for four years from the same plants, with field trials held in 2015.   In the United States, the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has actually released a perennial wheat variety it calls Kernza, which has been planted on a couple of hundred acres in Minnesota over the past few years.  There is already a niche market for this grain in a few products, including ale, noodles, and bread.


Another example of new cropping practices aimed at improving productivity and soil organic matter is inter-cropping of legumes such as peanuts (groundnuts) and pigeon peas in rotation with corn, this approach being called ‘double up’ legume technology.   This new practice is being tested in Malawi under the auspices of a Feed the Future project being implemented by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and partners such as Michigan State University.  Under this new system, with the groundnuts and pigeon peas, both crops are planted at the same time.  The groundnuts grow much more quickly, and are nearly mature by the time the pigeon peas start growing.  Once the groundnuts are harvested, the pigeon peas are then left in the field to grow to maturity.  Since both crops are legumes, they help to fix nitrogen in the soil, which helps to raise the yields of the corn that is planted in the field in the following season.  The pigeon pea crop leaves behind considerable residue once harvested, helping to bolster soil organic content, and the relatively high protein content of the crop (20 percent or more by weight) make it particularly useful for feeding young children and mothers in households that have little access to protein from animal sources.  Pigeon peas can be grown in a wide range of climate zones, potentially making it easier to utilize this ‘double up legume’ practice in other parts of the world.  This approach is also being used to grow soybeans in combination with pigeon peas in the Feed the Future project.