Crop Innovations: An Overview

By Jaclyn Tan

Over recent years, climate change and sustainability have emerged as much-discussed issues surrounding agriculture and food supply.

"When I started in my career, the general public impression was food was abundant, food was cheap. We didn't have to worry about how we produced our food," said Mark Lagrimini, professor and head of the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. "And what I found in the last five years is ... you read it in the papers, you hear it on TV and people are talking about food. There's been food shortages worldwide, the price of food has gone up, and people are wondering: Is our food supply stable?"

Today, in 2011, more than one billion people around the world are hungry and malnourished, according to a circular by the University of Nebraska's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR). Furthermore, the world's population is expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050. In order to ensure a healthy global population, the global food supply must also double by 2050, according to the IANR document.

And UNL researchers can help figure out how to meet the rising food need. "The university has tremendous resources," Lagrimini said. "It's like a living laboratory."

Lagrimini has been a plant molecular biologist for about 25 years and has been at UNL for five and a half of those years. In August 2005, he became head of the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, which is part of the IANR. Current research efforts at the UNL Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, Lagrimini said, are focused in five areas: climate change, bioenergy, soil and water conservation, health and well being and fundamental plant science.

Impact of Climate Change
Because plants depend on sufficient water, sunlight and right temperatures for them to grow, the impact of climate change can affect the crops farmers can grow that year. In a state like Nebraska where almost a third of its residents make their living from agriculture, research to minimize the impact of varying climate on farmers is the top priority at the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.

"We know we're going to be getting periods of low water, low rainfall, and periods of probably excessive rainfall. We're probably going to have more storms, more hail," Lagrimini said. "And what we have to do is- for farmers to be profitable, for people to always have a consistent supply of food- we have to be able to make plants and do agricultural practices that are going to maintain a sustainable production even under varied years of rainfall, varied years of storms." UNL researchers are exploring how farmers can adapt to these problems by varying the crops they plant, changing the way they till the soil, and how and when they water their crops.

While climate change and sustainability may seem to have only recently surfaced in public discourse, Lagrimini said researchers at UNL are well-equipped to study climate change because they've been studying the issue for about 80 years.

People didn't talk about climate change back then, Lagrimini said, but during the Dust Bowl years in the 1930s, NU researchers played key roles studying methods of tilling soil to figure out how to prevent soil from being blown about by the wind, causing erosion. This research included soil and water conservation and is strongly linked to sustainable agriculture.

Lagrimini's research interests include improving drought tolerance in crops. He said he's been able to do a good job because of UNL's research resources and the state's diverse climates and ecosystems.

"Nebraska is very representative for types of agricultural and natural resource lands on the East Coast all the way to the West Coast," Lagrimini said. "It's like a microcosm of the whole country, so it's a great place to do research."

For example, the eastern part of Nebraska is similar to Iowa because it has large amounts of rainfall and crops can be grown easily without irrigation, he said. "In the western part of the state it's the opposite: you get very low rainfall," he added, "and it's difficult for farmers to make a living there.
They have to be more creative, they have to vary their crops year-to-year and they make key decisions on what crops they're going to grow."

Another kind of region is the Sandhills, which form the largest sand dune area in the Western hemisphere, according to UNL's Sand Hills Biocomplexity Project. Sandhills make up one-third of Nebraska, Lagrimini said, and is another unique ecosystem.

Limited Resources Require Shift to Sustainability
Another big agricultural challenge to meet is sustainable food production. "It's an important issue for people these days and what it means to them is being able to keep the food available for them to buy, at a reasonable price every year, no matter what happens to the climate, no matter what happens to our water resources."

"Sustainability simply means being able to produce an adequate amount of food without consuming all of our finite resources such as water, soil and fossil fuels," Lagrimini said. In the last 70 years, he said farmers could increase the amount of crops they produce by simply expanding their operations. But now, they can't.

"We've done that by increasing the number of acres we planted on. We can't do that anymore - we're planting all the land we have right now," Lagrimini said. "We did that by improving

Dr. Mark Lagrimini

Dr. Mark Lagrimini

our equipment - putting more energy into producing larger tractors and planters and combines. Well, we pretty much hit the top there, as far as we can go, so we're not going to be able to do that. We can't put more fuel into it 'cause we're running out of fuel. We have to worry about how much fuel we put into the farms."

Increasing yield with limited resources is already a challenge, but additionally the department aims to improve the nutritional quality of crops produced, Lagrimini said. "We have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes [in this country] but we also have a lot of hungry people in this country at the same time," he said. "So we need to be able to produce food that's more nutritious so people can be healthier. And yet, we got to get that food to people who need it, so it's kind of a difficult problem."

Solutions in Plant Science, Conservation and Bioenergy
UNL researchers are exploring three solutions to sustainability problems: plant science, soil and water conservation and bioenergy.

By studying plant genetics, Lagrimini said researchers hope to understand enough about plants' genetic makeup to breed crops that are more adaptable to different climates, more resistant to disease and insects, and more efficient in taking up water and drawing nutrients from the soil. In this way, farmers don't have to use as much water for crops or apply as much pesticide and herbicide, but can still attain greater yield during harvest season.

However, more efficient crops means smart management of soil and water is necessary as well. "Because if we're going to be growing more food, we're going to have to not destroy our soil and our resources in the process of doing that," Lagrimini said.

One of the department's greatest achievements is in the soil area, he said. For example, researchers did a lot of research in methods of tilling soil, especially during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. What they found was that the no-tillage method, meaning farmers not tilling the soil every planting season, led to less soil erosion problems and maintained better soil quality. This achievement helped farmers through those tough drought years.

Similarly, researchers have managed to conserve water and soil by creating two computer programs, called Water Optimizer and Hybrid Maize, that model plant growth. Farmers can use these programs to select the variety of crop they're growing.

Because the programs hold information on the growth cycle and characteristics of specific crops, it can give farmers instructions on when and how much to water or fertilize the crop. Lagrimini said by simply timing when they water their crops, farmers can maximize yield while saving up to 25 percent in water usage.

But even with better crops, soil and water management, Lagrimini said "the country has to find another form of fuel" because "we are running out of fossil fuels." One fuel alternative is biofuel, meaning fuel made from animal waste or plant material. Some of the research at UNL involves improving switchgrass and sorghum as a raw material for making biofuel, Lagrimini said. Researchers are also studying the lifecycle of biofuels systems, he added.

Future Research Goals
In September 2010, the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture celebrated 100 years of agricultural innovations, education and outreach to Nebraska's community.

One future goal is trying to make plants as adaptable to change as possible, so they don't require as much management by the farmer. "We want smart plants, if you can call it that," Lagrimini said, such as plants that can automatically adapt to low rainfall without much intervention on the part of the farmer.

These plants would also be able to "communicate" to the farmer in some way about what it needs, Lagrimini said. He doesn't know how researchers will achieve this yet, but he said they do have some ideas already. For example, through genetic modification, researchers may be able to create plants that emit a signature color when they need more nutrients or water, Lagrimini said.


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