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  • richardmitnick 3:41 pm on November 12, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "SMART discovers nondisruptive way to characterize the surface of nanoparticles", Agriculture, , , ,   

    From MIT News: “SMART discovers nondisruptive way to characterize the surface of nanoparticles” 

    MIT News

    From MIT News

    November 12, 2019
    Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology

    New method overcomes limitations of existing chemical procedures and may accelerate nanoengineering of materials.

    1
    Schematic illustration of probe adsorption influenced by an attractive interaction within the corona.

    Researchers from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) have made a discovery that allows scientists to “look” at the surface density of dispersed nanoparticles. This technique enables researchers to understand the properties of nanoparticles without disturbing them, at a much lower cost and far more quickly than with existing methods.

    The new process is explained in a paper entitled “Measuring the Accessible Surface Area within the Nanoparticle Corona using Molecular Probe Adsorption,” published in the academic journal Nano Letters. It was led by Michael Strano, co-lead principal investigator of the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) research group at SMART and the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor at MIT, and MIT graduate student Minkyung Park. DiSTAP is a part of SMART, MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, and develops new technologies to enable Singapore, a city-state which is dependent upon imported food and produce, to improve its agriculture yield to reduce external dependencies.

    The molecular probe adsorption (MPA) method is based on a noninvasive adsorption of a fluorescent probe on the surface of colloidal nanoparticles in an aqueous phase. Researchers are able to calculate the surface coverage of dispersants on the nanoparticle surface — which are used to make it stable at room temperature — by the physical interaction between the probe and nanoparticle surface.

    “We can now characterize the surface of the nanoparticle through its adsorption of the fluorescent probe. This allows us to understand the surface of the nanoparticle without damaging it, which is, unfortunately, the case with chemical processes widely used today,” says Park. “This new method also uses machines that are readily available in labs today, opening up a new, easy method for the scientific community to develop nanoparticles that can help revolutionize different sectors and disciplines.”

    The MPA method is also able to characterize a nanoparticle within minutes compared to several hours that the best chemical methods require today. Because it uses only fluorescent light, it is also substantially cheaper.

    DiSTAP has started to use this method for nanoparticle sensors in plants and nanocarriers for delivery of molecular cargo into plants.

    “We are already using the new MPA method within DiSTAP to aid us in creating sensors and nanocarriers for plants,” says Strano. “It has enabled us to discover and optimize more sensitive sensors and understand the surface chemistry, which in turn allows for greater precision when monitoring plants. With higher-quality data and insight into plant biochemistry, we can ultimately provide optimal nutrient levels or beneficial hormones for healthier plants and higher yields.”

    See the full article here .


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    The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the twenty-first century. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.

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  • richardmitnick 9:25 am on September 4, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Where ethics; welfare; and sustainability meet swine", Agriculture, , For most farmers farming is not just a livelihood it’s a lifestyle. So if they lose social license not only do they lose their livelihood but they lose their lifestyle., Parsons and his colleagues have spent years crafting and refining their swine unit at Penn with the aim of making pig farms more sustainable nationwide., Swine Teaching and Research Center at the New Bolton Center campus.,   

    From Penn Today: “Where ethics, welfare, and sustainability meet swine” 


    From Penn Today

    September 3, 2019
    Gina Vitale
    Eric Sucar, Photographer

    At New Bolton Center’s model pig farm, free-roaming sows are implanted with RFID chips, nourished by organic feed, and powered by solar energy.

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    Thomas Parsons, director of Penn Vet’s Swine Teaching and Research Center, cradles a piglet at the school’s facility on the New Bolton Center campus. Parsons and colleagues have worked for years to improve animal welfare and environmental sustainability at the swine unit, and with recent improvements, are setting a new standard for the industry.

    At Penn Vet’s Swine Unit at New Bolton Center, 500-pound pigs squeal and strut in a sunny outdoor pen. Thomas Parsons, professor of swine production medicine and director of the Swine Teaching and Research Center, leans down to pat them on their sides as they sniff at his denim overalls.

    Parsons and his colleagues have spent years crafting and refining their swine unit at Penn with the aim of making pig farms more sustainable nationwide. Their “farm of the future,” with humane conditions and efficient use of resources, stands to reshape the environmental and social impacts of raising swine.

    The way Parsons sees it, to define a pig farm as sustainable, it must be both socially acceptable and economically viable.

    “For most farmers, farming is not a livelihood, it’s a lifestyle,” Parsons says. “And so if they lose that social license, not only do they lose their livelihood, but they lose their lifestyle.”

    See the full article here .

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    Academic life at Penn is unparalleled, with 100 countries and every U.S. state represented in one of the Ivy League’s most diverse student bodies. Consistently ranked among the top 10 universities in the country, Penn enrolls 10,000 undergraduate students and welcomes an additional 10,000 students to our world-renowned graduate and professional schools.

    Penn’s award-winning educators and scholars encourage students to pursue inquiry and discovery, follow their passions, and address the world’s most challenging problems through an interdisciplinary approach.

     
  • richardmitnick 4:11 pm on May 10, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , Nation’s Beekeepers Lost 44 Percent of Bees in 2015-16,   

    From U Maryland: “Nation’s Beekeepers Lost 44 Percent of Bees in 2015-16” 

    U Maryland bloc

    University of Maryland

    May 10, 2016
    Matthew Wright
    301-405-9267
    mewright@umd.edu

    1
    Bee Informed Partnership/ University of Maryland

    Beekeepers across the United States lost 44 percent of their honey bee colonies during the year spanning April 2015 to April 2016, according to the latest preliminary results of an annual nationwide survey. Rates of both winter loss and summer loss—and consequently, total annual losses—worsened compared with last year. This marks the second consecutive survey year that summer loss rates rivaled winter loss rates.

    The survey, which asks both commercial and small-scale beekeepers to track the health and survival rates of their honey bee colonies, is conducted each year by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Survey results for this year and all previous years are publicly available on the Bee Informed website.

    “We’re now in the second year of high rates of summer loss, which is cause for serious concern,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership. “Some winter losses are normal and expected. But the fact that beekeepers are losing bees in the summer, when bees should be at their healthiest, is quite alarming.”

    Beekeepers who responded to the survey lost a total of 44.1 percent of their colonies over the course of the year. This marks an increase of 3.5 percent over the previous study year (2014-15), when loss rates were found to be 40.6 percent. Winter loss rates increased from 22.3 percent in the previous winter to 28.1 percent this past winter, while summer loss rates increased from 25.3 percent to 28.1 percent.

    The researchers note that many factors are contributing to colony losses. A clear culprit is the varroa mite, a lethal parasite that can easily spread between colonies. Pesticides and malnutrition caused by changing land use patterns are also likely taking a toll, especially among commercial beekeepers.

    A recent study, published online in the journal Apidologie on April 20, 2016, provided the first multi-year assessment of honey bee parasites and disease in both commercial and backyard beekeeping operations. Among other findings (summarized in a recent University of Maryland press release), that study found that the varroa mite is far more abundant than previous estimates indicate and is closely linked to several damaging viruses.

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    Varroa mite

    Varroa is a particularly challenging problem among backyard beekeepers (defined as those who manage fewer than 50 colonies).

    “Many backyard beekeepers don’t have any varroa control strategies in place. We think this results in colonies collapsing and spreading mites to neighboring colonies that are otherwise well-managed for mites,” said Nathalie Steinhauer, a graduate student in the UMD Department of Entomology who leads the data collection efforts for the annual survey. “We are seeing more evidence to suggest that good beekeepers who take the right steps to control mites are losing colonies in this way, through no fault of their own.”

    This is the tenth year of the winter loss survey, and the sixth year to include summer and annual losses in addition to winter loss data. More than 5,700 beekeepers from 48 states responded to this year’s survey. All told, these beekeepers are responsible for about 15 percent of the nation’s estimated 2.66 million managed honey bee colonies.

    The survey is part of a larger research effort to understand why honey bee colonies are in such poor health, and what can be done to manage the situation. Some crops, such as almonds, depend entirely on honey bees for pollination. Estimates of the total economic value of honey bee pollination services range between $10 billion and $15 billion annually.

    “The high rate of loss over the entire year means that beekeepers are working overtime to constantly replace their losses,” said Jeffery Pettis, a senior entomologist at the USDA and a co-coordinator of the survey. “These losses cost the beekeeper time and money. More importantly, the industry needs these bees to meet the growing demand for pollination services. We urgently need solutions to slow the rate of both winter and summer colony losses.”

    ###

    This survey was conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership, which receives a majority of its funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (Award No. 2011-67007-20017). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA.

    See the full article here .

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    U Maryland Campus

    Driven by the pursuit of excellence, the University of Maryland has enjoyed a remarkable rise in accomplishment and reputation over the past two decades. By any measure, Maryland is now one of the nation’s preeminent public research universities and on a path to become one of the world’s best. To fulfill this promise, we must capitalize on our momentum, fully exploit our competitive advantages, and pursue ambitious goals with great discipline and entrepreneurial spirit. This promise is within reach. This strategic plan is our working agenda.

    The plan is comprehensive, bold, and action oriented. It sets forth a vision of the University as an institution unmatched in its capacity to attract talent, address the most important issues of our time, and produce the leaders of tomorrow. The plan will guide the investment of our human and material resources as we strengthen our undergraduate and graduate programs and expand research, outreach and partnerships, become a truly international center, and enhance our surrounding community.

    Our success will benefit Maryland in the near and long term, strengthen the State’s competitive capacity in a challenging and changing environment and enrich the economic, social and cultural life of the region. We will be a catalyst for progress, the State’s most valuable asset, and an indispensable contributor to the nation’s well-being. Achieving the goals of Transforming Maryland requires broad-based and sustained support from our extended community. We ask our stakeholders to join with us to make the University an institution of world-class quality with world-wide reach and unparalleled impact as it serves the people and the state of Maryland.

     
  • richardmitnick 3:14 pm on September 18, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , ,   

    From MSU: “Harvesting clues to GMO dilemmas from China’s soybean fields” 

    Michigan State Bloc

    Michigan State University

    Sept. 18, 2015
    Sue Nichols

    1
    Jing Sun, a CSIS research associate, examines soybeans in a field in Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China. Courtesy of MSU

    China’s struggle – mirrored across the globe – to balance public concern over the safety of genetically modified crops with a swelling demand for affordable food crops has left a disconnect: In China’s case, shrinking fields of domestic soybean – by law non-GM – and massive imports of cheaper soybeans that are the very GM crop consumers profess to shun.

    Researchers at Michigan State University take a first look at how China’s soybean farmers are reacting when their crop struggles in the global market.

    The study, published in this week’s journal Scientific Reports, has discovered what Chinese farmers are growing on lands once dominated by non-GM soy, as well as farmers bucking that trend and planting more. Researchers say these farming choices may offer solutions to a national dilemma.

    “Many studies have focused on the global expansion of GM crops. However, the spatial and temporal changes of non-GM crops are not clear, although they have significant socioeconomic and environmental impacts as well as policy implications in the telecoupled world,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “Understanding the finer points of growing soybeans will be a crucial step to managing a global enterprise.”

    Demand for soybean as food, feed and oil has soared as China’s economy booms and eating habits change. China is now the world’s largest soybean importer – bringing in more than 80 percent of the soybeans consumed, mostly from Brazil and the United States. Those imported crops are GM crops.

    Jing Sun, a research associate in CSIS, and his colleagues found that soybean farming in China is generally struggling as farmers switch to more profitable crops, with soybean fields shrinking and becoming more fragmented. But Sun also discovered surprising pockets of resilience and identified strengths in soybean cultivation that may point a way to give Chinese soybean consumers what they say they want.

    “Cost versus food safety concerns is a dilemma in China, and consumers are pretending not to notice the soybeans they are getting are genetically modified,” Sun said. “Our work will help inform the Chinese government on the status of local soybean crops, which is an issue that transcends the GM controversy, and includes environmental concerns.”

    Sun and colleagues scrutinized satellite data of the nation’s leading soybean-growing region, Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China. There they found farmers converting fields from soybean to corn but not without environmental consequence. Unlike soybeans, corn cannot use nitrogen in the soil, so it requires more fertilizers that can cause pollution.

    Yet even as daunting market pressures reduce soy plantings, Sun’s analysis found surprising hotspots of soybeans. As it turns out, soybean farming has advantages that may point the way to a resurgence. Farmers in the north found soybeans more forgiving of cold springs and short growing seasons that can cause corn to fail. And for some, soybean farming is a powerful tradition.

    The authors say China’s current dependence on foreign imports to fill its burgeoning soybean demand – and its decrease in domestic production – comes with potential costs around the globe, including the possibility of Amazon rainforest deforestation as Brazil ramps up soybean production to meet demand.

    In addition to Liu and Sun, the paper was authored by Wenbin Wu and Huajun Tang of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

    The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and MSU AgBioResearch.

    See the full article here .

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    Michigan State Campus

    Michigan State University (MSU) is a public research university located in East Lansing, Michigan, United States. MSU was founded in 1855 and became the nation’s first land-grant institution under the Morrill Act of 1862, serving as a model for future land-grant universities.

    MSU pioneered the studies of packaging, hospitality business, plant biology, supply chain management, and telecommunication. U.S. News & World Report ranks several MSU graduate programs in the nation’s top 10, including industrial and organizational psychology, osteopathic medicine, and veterinary medicine, and identifies its graduate programs in elementary education, secondary education, and nuclear physics as the best in the country. MSU has been labeled one of the “Public Ivies,” a publicly funded university considered as providing a quality of education comparable to those of the Ivy League.

    Following the introduction of the Morrill Act, the college became coeducational and expanded its curriculum beyond agriculture. Today, MSU is the seventh-largest university in the United States (in terms of enrollment), with over 49,000 students and 2,950 faculty members. There are approximately 532,000 living MSU alumni worldwide.

     
  • richardmitnick 5:57 pm on July 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, ,   

    From NOVA: “Agriculture May Have Started 11,000 Years Earlier Than We Thought” 

    PBS NOVA

    NOVA

    Mon, 27 Jul 2015

    The technology that allowed us to build cities and develop specialized vocations may have first started 23,000 years ago in present day Israel—some 11,000 years earlier than expected—but then mysteriously disappeared from later settlements.

    Archaeologists found evidence of farming—including sickles, grinding stones, domesticated seeds, and, yes, weeds—in a sedentary camp that was flooded by the Sea of Galilee until the 1980s when drought and water pumping shrank the lake’s footprint. The 150,000 seeds found at the site represent 140 plant species, including wild oat, barley, and emmer wheat along with 13 weed species that are common today. The find not only illustrates humanity’s initial forays into farming, but it also provides the earliest evidence that weeds evolved alongside human ecological disturbances like farms and settlement clearings.

    1
    Archaeologists found wild barley seeds buried at the site.

    Mysteriously, the lessons learned from those early trials either were forgotten or were a failure. The study’s authors point out that neither sickles nor similar seeds have been found at settlements dating to just after the Sea of Galilee site, which is known as Ohalo II.

    The settlement was composed of a number of huts covered with tree branches, leaves, and grasses. Archaeologists also found a variety of flint and ground stone tools, several hearths, beads, animal remains, and an adult male gravesite. They suspect Ohalo II was occupied year round based on the remains of various migratory birds, which are known to visit the area during different times of year.

    The seeds that made up much of the settlers’ diets are surprisingly familiar. Here’s Ainit Snir and colleagues, writing in their paper published in PLoS One:

    Some of the plants are the progenitors of domesticated crop species such as emmer wheat, barley, pea, lentil, almond, fig, grape, and olive. Thus, about 11,000 years before what had been generally accepted as the onset of agriculture, people’s diets relied heavily on the same variety of plants that would eventually become domesticated.

    While Snir and coauthors think that Ohalo II’s fields were simply early trials and that plants weren’t fully domesticated until 11,000 years later, they do suspect that future discoveries could flesh out long, trial-and-error development of agriculture.

    See the full article here.

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    NOVA is the highest rated science series on television and the most watched documentary series on public television. It is also one of television’s most acclaimed series, having won every major television award, most of them many times over.

     
  • richardmitnick 3:14 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, ,   

    From NOVA: “The Quest for Everlasting Agriculture” 

    PBS NOVA

    NOVA

    05 Nov 2014
    Brooke Borel

    t’s a cycle nearly as old as human history. Plow, plant, harvest, and repeat. It worked for our ancestors, and it’s working for us now, though with ever more problems, from obliterating soil nutrients to encouraging erosion. And things may get worse in the future, too, when climate change threatens—whether through drowning or drought—to topple our food production system at the moment we’ll need it most: In less than 90 years, the world’s population could crest between 9 and 12 billion, and that will test the limits of farming.

    “Soil quality around the world has become degraded,” says Sieglinde Snapp, an agroecologist at Michigan State University. “So how are we going to feed more people with higher quality food? How will we provide more protein? And the big question is: how are we going to feed 9 billion in a sustainable way with degraded soil?”

    wh
    Modifying crops like wheat could help boost yields by extending the growing season.

    There are myriad possibilities. Among the options is raising the output of current farming techniques using genetic modification, specialized fungi, or precision agriculture. But another ambitious idea is to extend the growing season, which will involve rewriting much of the book of agriculture. In other words, if we were to redo the agricultural revolution today, what would it look like?

    For untold generations, farmers have plowed their fields and planted their crops in the spring, harvested them in the fall, and done it all over again the next year. But in the last several decades, agricultural experts have been experimenting with eliminating the spring planting by developing perennial crops, essentially revising thousands of years of selective breeding.

    To see how perennials could help, just visit a farm in the Midwest in the dead of winter. You’ll likely find fallow fields scattered with dead plants. Some of them may be covered in snow. But under the surface, the frozen soil has locked in key nutrients and water. When the spring thaw begins—but before it’s dry and pliable enough for planting the next season’s crops—the warming fields will begin to lose some of their moisture and nutrients, which end up draining into ditches, rivers, and streams or seeping into the atmosphere. From a farmer’s perspective, the combination of these soil changes, the longer days, and the springtime rains add up to a lost opportunity. If only they could start growing sooner.

    Which is why a relatively small group of scientists are developing year-round cereals and oilseeds, both key ingredients of the modern human diet. Most of these grains today are annuals, which complete a lifecycle once every year and must be replanted the next growing season. Depending on the farming method, the cycle may include tilling, sowing, and harvesting, which, when done regularly on the same plot of land, leeches nutrients from the soil and contributes to erosion. This system also requires more energy-intensive machines and materials, from fossil-fuel-burning farming equipment to synthetic fertilizers that push nitrogen back into over-taxed soil.

    Perennial crops, on the other hand, could survive for many seasons, axing the annual cycle and lessening farming’s wear-and-tear on the environment. Some varieties could also have longer, lusher root systems that would sink deeper into the ground, helping maintain soil health and curbing erosion. They could even help the plants survive a drought.

    Such a system would allow for longer growing seasons, too, taking advantage of the late autumn and early spring months when fields usually lay bare. Assuming that perennial crops produced the same amount as their annual counterparts—a big assumption—this would provide additional food each year from the same plot of land. A shift from annuals to perennials, or a mixture of both, could benefit both the environment and food security.

    “The way in which we currently grow grains is very similar to how we started growing grains a long, long time ago, and the ecosystem of agriculture has not changed much over that period of time,” says Timothy Crews, an ecologist and the research director at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, where scientists have been studying perennial crops since the mid-1970s and actively breeding them since 2000. “We need to supplant purchased, high-energy inputs and mechanization inputs with ecological processes that achieve comparable or superior outcomes, which could build slow organic matter in cropping systems instead of maintaining or depleting it, which is what current agriculture does.”

    The trick, however, will be coaxing crops into simultaneously surviving year-round and growing plump and harvestable seeds. Plants, as we’ve discovered over the millennia, tend to prefer one or the other, not both. Though thanks to the work of Crews and a handful of enterprising scientists, that may be changing.

    Perennial Advances

    Agronomists and botanists have been trying to create perennial crops since at least the 1920s, when Russian scientists started a program to breed perennial wheat. But over the past ten to 15 years or so, the field has grown significantly, says Lee DeHaan, a plant geneticist at the Land Institute. This is partly because more research groups have taken up the idea and those labs have had a chance to mature. In October, one of the first dedicated scientific meetings on the topic attracted around 50 such researchers to Estes Park, Colorado to discuss breeding and management strategies.

    For perennial crop researchers, advances in genetics have given them an unprecedented level of understanding and control over their subjects. “If you consider the early Russian work, they were working very blindly,” DeHaan says. “They could make crosses and observe the plants, but they had no way to know the genes or chromosomes involved.”

    Today, there are two main approaches to breeding perennial crops, both of which require genetic tinkering. Both, too, are numbers games. The first is domestication, where plant breeders try to tame a wild perennial plant. This requires planting and observing thousands or tens of thousands of individual plants and then selecting those with the most promising characteristics—large seeds that hang onto the plant long enough for a harvest, for example, or ears that contain many seeds. The next step is to crossbreed these winners in an attempt to capture their positive traits in the next generation. Software that tracks which individual plants possess which traits—a tool that was unavailable to the Russian scientists in the 1920s—helps guide decisions on which offspring make it to the next round.

    sw
    Shuwen Wang, a perennial wheat breeder at the Land Institute, inspects a crossbred plant.

    Still, domestication is numbingly slow and difficult work. Wild perennials tend to drop their ripe seeds earlier than tame ones, a trait plant scientists call “shattering.” It’s advantageous for wild varieties to shatter because it allows their seeds to germinate when they’re ripest, but it’s useless to a farmer who wants those ripe seeds to stay on the plant until harvest. And while many wild perennials can easily survive multiple seasons, Crews says, it has been difficult to increase their yields and grain sizes to anywhere near those of annual crops.

    The second approach, and the more common one, is hybridization. Here, an annual crop is crossbred with a wild perennial counterpart in hopes that they will eventually produce a perennial crop. Hybridization offers a shortcut: annual varieties already contain the genetic recipe for high yields and big, harvestable seeds, and the wild perennials host the genetic code for longevity. Researchers can quickly identify genetic information that is linked to specific physical characteristics by using known stretches of genetic code called DNA markers. By snipping some tissue from a plant and extracting its DNA, breeders can see which genetic variations it inherited from its parents rather than waiting for the plant to grow and observing its traits, accelerating the breeding process.

    Unfortunately, hybrids are often sterile, and even if they do produce offspring, they don’t always pass on the desired traits. While a few offspring will be fertile, they can also be fragile. Sometimes hybrid embryos must be coddled in a lab in a process called “embryo rescue,” which involves growing them in special nutrients to ensure their growth. Even the most successful hybrids may then need to be cross-bred to bring them up to par.

    em
    A wheat embryo, sitting on the tip of the scalpel, is rescued from an immature hybrid seed.

    Researchers across the country are trying both approaches and testing their results in the field. The Land Institute, for example, is domesticating wild sunflowers and wheatgrass—a variety they’ve named “kernza”—and their scientists are also developing a hybrid perennial wheat. Snapp, the Michigan State agroecologist, and her team conduct field research on perennial wheat in Michigan, as well as on the naturally-occurring perennial pigeon pea, a legume and a source of high protein, in Tanzania and Malawi. Still others across the world are working on rice, sorghum, corn, and mustard plants that don’t have to be planted every year.

    Andrew Paterson, a plant geneticist at the University of Georgia, is among the researchers working on hybrid sorghum perennials, including a project to cross an annual domesticated variety with a wild weedy sorghum called Johnson grass, which produces an extensive underground stem system called a rhizome. When the stems of a plant with rhizomes are cut, more grow in their place. Paterson points out that there are around nine or ten genetic variations known to be responsible for perennial characteristics like this in wild sorghum, and some of the same genes are also found in rice. That these two grains diverged from a common ancestor around 50 million years ago yet still retain such similar perennial genetic traits suggests that a wide range of crops which have distant common ancestors may also share the same features.

    “It looks like genetic control of perenniality is pretty similar in very different grain crops,” Paterson says. “So as we learn more about one, we learn more about all of them.”
    New Plantings

    Should researchers successfully develop perennial crops, it’ll be up to farmers to put them to work. Currently, philosophies differ on how crops should be planted in the future perennial landscape. The Land Institute envisions farmers sowing prairie-like fields with a mixture of perennials. And while this approach may help ward off pest insects and weeds, which more easily infiltrate a conventional field of a single crop, it complicates matters come harvest time. Currently, when a farmer cuts wheat, he knows he’s not going to be accidentally including corn in the harvest because each field grows a separate crop. Crews doesn’t think this will pose a significant challenge since the machinery to sort different seeds already exists, though it would likely need to be modified for this scenario.

    Paterson and others take the opposite view, suggesting that future perennial crops will simply be plugged into the current monoculture system, which would be easier to harvest with existing technology.

    Still others suggest a mosaic approach, which would include both monocultures and mixed fields as well as a combination of annuals and perennials. The idea is, in part, a practical one since large-scale monocultures already exist and probably aren’t going anywhere. “There’s corn and soybeans out there on millions of acres of Midwestern landscape. They’re not going away,” says Donald Wyse, an agroecologist at the University of Minnesota. Wyse oversees several projects that aim for year-round field coverage, including both perennials and annual winter crops, such as hazel nuts that could be swapped out with an annual summer crop. “It’s going to come down to what we can put in mixtures or in perennial monocultures,” he adds.

    wh
    Workers harvest crossbred wheat for analysis.

    To a degree, mosaics already exist, it just depends on the scale at which you look for them. Look out of the window the next time you’re in or flying over the Midwest. There, the farmland is a patchwork quilt interrupted by occasional stands of trees and shrubs. A mosaic that includes perennials could break farmland up even more, with smaller patches containing a wider variety of plants. These perennials might be grown on parts of a farmer’s field that are usually left unplanted, where they would provide both environmental and economic benefits. For example, Wyse says, some perennials could be not only food crops, but also oilseeds for making biofuels, forage for animal feed, and raw materials for other commercial products like cosmetics. If these perennials were planted around the edges of larger single-crop field, they could recreate, on a small scale, the region’s once extensive prairies while also giving farmers something to sell.

    “Deliberately planned landscapes like mosaics are the future, and perennial grains offers an option for mosaics that we don’t have now,” Snapp says. “Not all farmers can afford to have strips of prairie in their fields to provide sustainable grasses. It’s better to have practical options that also provide something they can sell or eat.”
    Making Space

    Regardless of how perennial fields will look—whether they’re blankets of monoculture, edible prairies, or a patchwork of both—we’ll still have to determine how they fit into our current food system. After all, we’ve been cooking and baking with many of the same grains for generations.

    In some places, we can glimpse this future. Kernza, the wheatgrass from the Land Institute, is already on limited menus. It’s in the pancake mix at Birchwood Café in Minneapolis, for example, which has been cooking around 50 pounds of the grain each season over the past two years. The Free State Brewery in Lawrence, Kansas made a pilot batch of a kernza saison beer several years ago, and WheatFields, a nearby bakery, has been experimenting with kernza bread for the past five or so years.
    Breeding Preparation
    Wheatgrass heads are placed in paper bags during breeding to ensure pollen is only transferred between selected plants.

    The grain’s largest commercial debut is forthcoming from Patagonia Provisions, a cousin of the clothing company, which is rolling out a line of environmentally-conscious foods. According to director Birgit Cameron, the company is experimenting with kernza both as a whole grain and ground into flour, and they plan to have a product out within the next two years.

    So how does it taste? Most people who have cooked or brewed with it want to try more, as long as they can get their hands on supplies. (The grain has a much lower yield than annual crops.) “The kernza is popular—it’s very nutritious, it cooks well, and it has good protein content,” says Marshall Paulsen, the head chef at Birchwood Café. “I hope to keep cooking with it.”

    To move the crop, and others like it, from farms to more restaurants, bakeries, and breweries, however, will require a herculean shift not only in plant genetics and farming practices, but also in how grains are bought and sold. Our most common grains and oilseeds—wheat, corn, soybeans, oats, rice, and canola—are traded on the global commodities market, where prices fluctuate based on activity on various futures exchanges. Bringing a new crop into that system is virtually impossible because there is literally no button or bin for it in the grain elevator, says plant geneticist Stephen Jones, who heads, among other things, research on perennials at Washington State University.

    To explore another model, Jones opened the Bread Lab at WSU around three years ago to facilitate smaller local markets that will support new perennials and other crops that don’t fit into the current system. The lab has a resident baker as well as visiting chefs, brewers, and millers to experiment with new crop varieties. It also helps pair up different businesses to speed along commercialization.

    The Bread Lab model allows for more leeway in the distribution and use of perennial crops. The lab is growing, for example, a perennial wheat that has a blue-green tint inherited from its wild relatives. “It’s really pretty, but there’s no commodity stream for that,” says Colin Curwen-McAdam, a graduate student who works on plant breeding and genetics in Jones’s department. “If you’re working in the traditional commodity sense trying to make these commodity grains, now we have to put them in the commodity box, which makes your job even harder.”

    In a way, the Bread Lab is a microcosm of the perennial crop world. Everything there is up for grabs, from commodities markets to the crops themselves. “It’s a brand new crop type,” Curwen-McAdam says, “and it’s completely unwritten as to what that can be.”

    See the full article here.

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