In Darwinian Agriculture, I argued that accepting tradeoffs rejected by past natural selection is key to past and near-future crop improvement, whereas novel phenotypes never tested by natural selection may eventually make major contributions. In this post, I will briefly discuss two recent papers relevant to this hypothesis.
Lee DeHaan and David Van Tassel published "Useful insights from evolutionary biology for developing perennial grain crops", in American Journal of Botany, while Lin et al. published "A faster Rubisco with potential to increase photosynthesis in crops" in Nature.
Perennial plants often develop more extensive root systems than annuals, reducing the risk of erosion. Well-managed perennial forages (pastures and hay fields) are arguably our most-sustainable agricultural system, supplying milk, meat, wool, and leather, and often getting most of their nitrogen from symbiotic rhizobia bacteria (the main focus of my own research) rather than external inputs.
The Land Institute, where DeHaan and Van Tassel work, has been attempting to develop perennial grain crops. I have argued that greater investment of photosynthate or nitrogen in roots will usually leave less of these limiting resources for grain (seeds). All else being equal, DeHaan and Van Tassel apparently agree:
"where annual crops can use a similar amount of water, light, and nutrients as the perennials... annuals will indeed have greater yield potential"But they have argued (and I agree, on p. 97 of my book) that perennials may sometimes capture more of these resources than annuals can. The last chapter of my book, on diversity and bet hedging, therefore included perennial grains as an example of high-risk approaches deserving some funding.
The potential of perennials to photosynthesize more months per year than annuals also implies using water more months per year, but their superior root systems can sometimes help water soak into the soil rather than being lost to runoff.
Actual results so far are somewhat discouraging, however. DeHaan and Van Tassel cite a paper by Culman et al., which found greater above-ground biomass in a perennial grass, kernza, relative to wheat. So it might be a better forage than wheat, but its grain yield (with moderate fertilizer) was only 4% that of wheat in year 1 and 39% in year 2. So it would take about 5 acres of kernza to produce as much grain as 1 acre of wheat. Where are those extra 4 acres (and the water to irrigate them) going to come from? Or can we realistically expect significant yield increases without losing the benefits of perenniality?
I have argued that while some tradeoffs (e.g., root vs. grain) constrain crop improvement, other tradeoffs can represent opportunities. For example, the fastest versions of the key photosynthetic enzyme work best at CO2 concentrations greater than atmospheric. Lin et al. transferred genes for one of these enzymes from cyanobacteria into tobacco. The resulting plants grew more slowly than unmodified tobacco, even at 9000 ppm CO2 (atmospheric is now 400 ppm). So this looks like a step in the wrong direction, but it's only a first step. The cyanobacterial enzyme works well in cyanobacteria because they also have a CO2-concentrating mechanism. Some plants, including corn, have different CO2-concentrating mechanisms. See "The evolutionary ecology of C4 plants" for an interesting discussion of how these mechanisms evolved in plants. If someone could combine the faster cyanobacterial enzyme with a plant or cyanobacterial concentrating mechanism, they might achieve significantly greater photosynthesis.
That could take a decade or more, but it's worth noting that perennial grains have been a significant focus of the Land Institute for most of their 38-year history.