Bigger, better crops combat climate change

More than 10 percent of the Earth’s land-surface is cropped, about 3.7 billion acres of carbon sequestration

Farmers’ toolkits for sustainability could soon include crops engineered with root systems designed to sequester more carbon in the soil, said Dominique Roche of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California.

He explained that humanity has achieved something no other species on Earth has ever done: change the atmosphere of the planet. From 1990 to the present, carbon dioxide levels have spiked 20 percent, from 310 parts per million to 415.

“Every year it goes up and down, but every year, it ends higher than the last year,” he said. “We cannot solve this problem without sequestration.”

Roche was speaking at the annual Canola Industry Meeting and Canola Innovation Day presented by Ag-West Bio in Saskatoon. The event drew about 280 delegates representing researchers, plant breeders, seed growers, and producer groups.

Crops, like all plants, sequester carbon in their tissues above and below ground. Salk researchers plan to use genetic engineering to enhance this ability through their Harnessing Plants Initiative. The aim is to produce plants with larger, more carbon-rich root systems — a quantity and quality approach.

The quality part of the equation centres on suberin, a molecule that makes up part of the cell walls of plants. Roche calls it “putting a cork on carbon,” since suberin is carbon-rich and it’s plentiful in cork trees.

“We are trying to modify the plants in such a way that they have lots of root systems, deeper root systems, and to be able to add some bioproducts that don’t biodegrade as fast in the soil,” he said.

The team has already found genes for enhanced root development and suberin production and is conducting work using arabidopsis, a common test plant for plant breeding and a relative of canola.

“We are focusing on all that genetic knowledge to be able to actually transfer it to canola; that is actually the first one we are working on right now.”

Roche said farmers have a key role in mitigating climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations about 3.7 billion acres, more than 10 percent of the Earth’s land surface, is used for crop production. The scope of the project earned it more than US$35 million in funding as recipient of one of eight 2019 Audacious Project grants.

Canadian agriculture’s contributions to climate change mitigation are well-known on the Prairies, said Chris Anderson, chief technology officer with Protein Industries Canada (PIC). These include practices such as minimum and zero till and returning marginal land to forage. Unfortunately, these contributions aren’t as well-known as they should be.

“We actually don’t have a very good mechanism for going out and talking about those practices, about the sustainability, about the positive impact on the environment that our farm production practices actually have,” he said.

PIC is one of five federally backed “superclusters” aimed at adding value to food and feed protein products from Canadian agriculture by funding projects in partnership with industry.

The Saskatchewan government has also argued that sustainable farming practices and innovations should be recognized as part of Canada’s climate change mitigation efforts.

Jim Everson, president of the Canola Council of Canada, agreed.

“What I find missing from this debate is the important role our industry plays in improving environmental outcomes,” he said, adding greenhouse gas reducing policies, such as the federal carbon tax hit the rural economy hard, particularly in a harvest as challenging as this year.

“Our growers and our agriculture industry should be recognized for the contributions we make to improve environmental outcomes,” he said. Biodiesel from off-grade canola, for example, can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent.

“When it comes to improving the environment, the canola industry is a solutions provider.”

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