Somewhere in the dryland wilds of eastern Washington, Michael Neff and his wife stop the car.
“I’ve always wanted to hike these dunes,” he says to her. “I could not believe the grasses that were stabilizing those dunes!” Neff says later. He refuses to identify where, exactly, the dunes in question are located. “It’s those little pockets of diversity that we need to identify and preserve,” he explains, almost—but not quite—apologetic.
Trained as a botanist and now a professor of molecular biology at Washington State University, Neff expands on why this is important: “If we’re going to be resilient in the face of climate change—or whatever the world is going to throw at us—we need those genetic resources.”
We often think large swaths of rainforest or savannah need preserving. Small corners of the Palouse and elsewhere also need protection, Neff says. “The giant cedars on top of Moscow Mountain, or the abandoned orchards on Steptoe Butte, where a supposedly extinct apple variety was rediscovered. Or old graveyards,” where native plants find their last refuge.
Increasingly, global warming is driving extreme climatic variability, bringing floods, droughts, and pests, all stressors that plants adapt to, if they are able, with genetic variations. A diverse, local population means there’s a greater chance of an individual member of a species finding an adaptive response to environmental stress—and then passing that adaptation on to its progeny.
And while the Pacific Northwest in the near term will likely be largely shielded from the worst, most dramatic effects of climate change, people in other parts of the world are already living on the knife’s edge. That’s why soil microbiologist Lynne Carpenter-Boggs is working on how to bring new life to ancient soils in Malawi, and why growers on a defunct tea plantation in India found new ways of earning a living diversifying their farms. And it’s also why WSU crop researcher Kevin Murphy is hauling seeds to Ecuador and Africa.
THE HUNGRY SEASON
Barley and quinoa breeder Murphy is working with farmers outside Cañar, an Ecuadorian village at about 13,000 feet in the Andes. Local farmers are distressed at the loss of their quinoa crop to early rains. Quinoa seeds don’t go dormant the way wheat and other grains do. They have to be kept dry. If rained on, quinoa starts sprouting right away. As Julianne Kellogg, one of Murphy’s grad students in Pullman, will later say, rain on quinoa before harvest results in a field full of chia pets. It’s a charming image—until you picture the people whose lives depend on that harvest. Then it is very distressing indeed.
Half a world away, there’s a drought in Rwanda. Murphy arrives and, by coincidence, the rains come, too. Indulging in a little magical thinking, the locals don’t want the mzungu, the Bantu word for white person, to leave, fearing he’ll take the rains with him.
Southeast of Rwanda, Murphy visits farmers in Malawi. There, too, the wet and dry seasons are out of whack. In a country that already deals with a “hungry season” when supplies of the dietary staples maize and cassava run low, climate variability spells disaster for one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.
“Climate change is on everyone’s radar,” Murphy says. “In recent memory, people in Ecuador had distinct rainy and dry seasons. They used to know to plant in March during the rainy season, and harvest in September during the dry season before the rains return. That’s not the case anymore. They no longer have that predictability.”
And all these regions are working with limited genetic resources in their local food systems. To Ecuador, Malawi, and Rwanda, Murphy brings backpacks full of diversity—lots and lots of barley and quinoa seeds—hoping to do a little to bolster local resiliency.
This isn’t some kind of aid, Murphy insists. Rather, Murphy, his students, and local farmers are together learning ways of innovating local agricultural systems in order to adapt to greater climate variability. “And we’re often trading seeds,” he adds, meaning he gets to bring genetic diversity back to his Pacific Northwest breeding program.
Quinoa is a new crop to Malawi and Rwanda. Murphy first took quinoa seeds to Malawi in 2012. “We measure success if local farmers adopt quinoa as a crop,” he says. Exact data on how widely quinoa has been adopted is impossible to come by. “But talking to local scientists and people who travel around the country,” he adds, “we do know it is.”
Not only are Malawians growing quinoa, they are eating it, too. “We ask people what they think of quinoa,” he says. “We had a grad student, Morgan Gardner, who spent time with the women in nine villages in Malawi, to see what their acceptance of a new crop is. Because once they’re done being polite, you get down to what their true thoughts are. And while they like the flavor of quinoa, one of the things they didn’t like about it was that they couldn’t eat it with their hands, the way they do nsima, their national food, which is made of ground maize. So we worked with some Malawian researchers to come up with a mix of maize and quinoa they like. They grind the quinoa in with the maize to make nsima. Quinoa supplements both agronomically and nutritionally.”
Adding a little diversity to their food system may help ward off the growling bellies of the hungry season. Instead of a single crop with one plant date and one harvest date, multiple crops, and multiple varieties of each, can be planted and harvested across a range of dates. Maintaining diverse populations of crop plants offers the hope that scientists and farmers will find varieties able to adapt to the stresses of a warming world.
THE FUTURE IS BENEATH US
Carpenter-Boggs hopes that fungi and an old law will help loosen the hard red clay of Malawian soil. That, and a little water, might improve crop yields and help villagers prosper.
Carpenter-Boggs explains the old biological Law of Minimums with a drawing of a rain barrel made of staves of varying lengths. Each stave, she explains, represents something a plant needs to grow: water, CO2, sunlight, nitrogen, phosphorus, and a slew of other nutrients. Just as the barrel will only hold as much liquid as its shortest stave, so too a plant will grow only to the limit of the scarcest resource. You can have all the CO2 in the world available for photosynthesis, but it’s going to be useless unless there is parity in the amount of
“If you can feed a legume more phosphorus, an essential macro-nutrient, you end up with more nitrogen, too,” she says. She’s talking about growing beans in the ancient, acidic, and nutritionally depleted soils of Malawi. Carpenter-Boggs recently won a Fulbright award that will fund her work in the landlocked African country for the first five months of 2018.
The problem is, many soils in Malawi are clays that love to bind up phosphorus in ways that make it unavailable to a plant. She can think of a couple ways around this predicament—but is eager to collaborate next year with Malawian scientists and farmers to figure out what’s actually going to work. Getting nitrogen-fixing beans to produce more of that essential fertilizer would be a boon to local agriculture.
One way would be to encourage mycorrhizal fungi to grow in the roots of plants. The fungi form a symbiotic relationship with the plant, essentially expanding the volume of its root system. The symbiosis enables the plant—and its fungal partners—to draw from a much larger well of moisture and nutrients.
The challenge is to find a strain of fungus that is at home in Malawi’s soils—and that’s not a given. Carpenter-Boggs has reason to be optimistic, though, as her previous work in nearby Tanzania yielded some promising results. Those results are in a freezer in Pullman, just waiting to be tested under African skies again.
Another way to slip plants nutrients is through their leaves. Foliar feeding, as it’s called, works by spraying a nutrient solution directly on leaves, where it enters via the cuticle and stomata, the openings that also enable plants to take in CO2 and expire oxygen. And while stomata are pretty limited in the volume of nutrients they can take in, they might be able to sip enough phosphorus to promote root growth, thus bringing in more water and nutrients.
What Carpenter-Boggs learns in Malawi may be applicable to the soils of eastern Washington. The soils of Malawi, Tanzania, and the Palouse have something in common: They’ve been acidified over a long period. Most crop plants don’t do well in acidic soils, and the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that form relationships with legumes like chickpeas and lentils don’t like it much either.
The reason farms in the Palouse, and many other parts of the world are becoming acidic is a long-term effect of the use of ammonia fertilizer. After World War II, industrial-scale production of ammonia fueled a Green Revolution. But as ammonia gets converted to nitrate, a plant-available form of nitrogen, it kicks out hydrogen ions—acids.
It’s that Law of Minimums again. Proper pH is one of the minimums needed for optimal plant growth. When soils become acidic, water-use efficiency declines.
NO SILVER BULLETS
There is no magic genetic bullet that is going to make plants thrive in high-stress environments, says Michael Neff.
“Here’s the challenge we face,” he says. “As soon as we say this is the hormone or process involved in drought tolerance, well, there’s a tradeoff because it’s also involved in other responses.” A single gene might be implicated in multiple biological processes, a function called pleiotropy. And, just to make the science really gnarly, multiple suites of genes may redundantly regulate a single process critical to existence. Neff and lots of other WSU researchers are busy combing through these tangles of genes, looking for the patterns that lead to useful traits—and resilient adaptations.
Neff explains that a change in one trait often leads to an unwanted one. For instance, wheat farmers in Washington want a seed that germinates right after planting. Indeed, says Neff, “Seed dormancy is being bred out of certain crops,” wheat included. But come harvest, that lack of dormancy can mean pre-harvest sprouting if rains come early.
The same is true with drought tolerance. Scientists can breed plants that are more tolerant by targeting certain hormones—but there are consequences. Plants take in CO2 through their stomata but, if water is scarce, the stomata close to reduce moisture loss—and photosynthesis slows down. And with stomata closed, a plant can’t regulate its temperature through transpiration, adding further stress to the system—and producing a smaller crop. Worse, water scarcity causes the plant to favor reproduction over pretty much everything else—including disease and pest resistance.
RESKILLING THE FUTURE
What Julianne Kellogg ’17 MS, experienced as an undergraduate researcher on an agricultural cooperative in India may be a clue to the future of resilient farming. As she tells the story, the cooperative emerged in the wake of the failure of a tea plantation owned by a British company. For decades, it had been standard practice to recruit Nepali workers to tea plantations in the Darjeeling region. But as competition increased, the value of the crop declined and business failures were inevitable.
When the tea plantation collapsed some 50 years ago, the workers simply stayed on the land and created what is now the Sanjukta Vikas Cooperative. They brought in a few cattle and grazed them on the tea bushes, which were succumbing to pests anyway. Eventually, a dairy cooperative was formed, and the former monocultural plantation was turned into a diverse system producing dairy products, as well as high-value turmeric, ginger, and citrus.
One lesson Kellogg took away from her experience in India was that farmer autonomy is critical. She says that although the Green Revolution did a lot of good, it didn’t work for everyone. In fact, it may have “deskilled” some farmers, Kellogg says, by handing them readymade solutions: seeds, inputs, and technology. After a generation or two, local knowledge was lost.
But when something changes—input costs go up, or the weather becomes highly variable—farmers no longer have the skills to deal with change. “They only know how to farm with these inputs,” Kellogg says.
Working with Kevin Murphy, Kellogg investigated an approach to plant breeding called evolutionary-participatory breeding. The participatory part of that formula comes from the farmer. Working with growers on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Kellogg set up quinoa trials using genetically diverse populations. The typical university approach would then have the breeder-researchers walk the fields, making selections based on a checklist of desirable traits.
Participatory breeding, while still involving the scientists collecting data, adds another layer by inviting farmers to cruise the fields, too. Kellogg uses the case of Nash Huber, a longtime organic farmer near Sequim, to illustrate her point.
Huber needed a new variety of kale because, as Kellogg relates, the commercially available varieties from seed companies produced plants that were too short. Huber didn’t want workers having to stoop to pick kale. He crossed kale with a tall Brussels sprout to produce a variety that could be harvested at waist height. Kellogg laughs and asks, “What university breeder would think of that?” She shrugs.
“A farmer would think of that, not a breeder. The farmers can see the je n’ais se quoi of a plant and say, ‘That’s it! That’s what I’ve been looking for.’”
Kellogg’s point is not to say that university breeders are unnecessary. Universities have the resources to test genetics, to find genes that express resistance to pests and other stresses. But farmers have local knowledge that we can all leverage to create a robust and resilient food system.
“Farmers need to be given the resources to innovate with their own traditional knowledge of farming and their knowledge of their landscape,” Kellogg says. “Outsiders can help facilitate but not direct.”
THESE ROOTS ARE LOCAL
We’re placing a high-risk and potentially high-reward bet on our future, says Claudio Stöckle, a biosystems engineer and cropping systems modeler at WSU. By not diving into greenhouse-gas mitigation efforts immediately, Stöckle says, we’re gambling on a technological breakthrough, like fusion power, that will solve all our energy needs—and eliminate humans’ carbon emissions.
But it’s hard to see how that solves food security problems in regions of the world profoundly affected by climate variability. Short of massive direct aid, people in Malawi and elsewhere are going to have to deal with poor soils, unpredictable rainfall, and a limited genetic resource pool with which to adapt.
As Stöckle argues, mitigation will matter in the long term but now, especially in the northern latitudes, what matters are adaptive systems that can buy us some time so that the gamble we are taking with our collective future has time to pay off.
If we are going to try to buy time, then what can individuals do in the near term to make resiliency more effective?
Soil scientist Carpenter-Boggs, along with hydrologist Jenny Adam and limnologist Stephanie Hampton, are adamant: We need to take care of our soils.
Hampton, director of WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach, says that in North America, “soils are our gold. We have some of the richest soils in the world, and we should be paying a lot more attention to them. The health of our soils is a big part of being resilient. A healthy soil, far too frequently overlooked, can make crops more efficient in their water use and keep soil moisture in place,
Like Carpenter-Boggs, Hampton is deeply concerned about the quality of soils in other parts of the world, such as Africa. “They are barely getting enough water to support crops,” Hampton says. “And in large parts of Africa, the soil doesn’t really have any organic matter. So droughts there are catastrophic.”
One of the innovations Hampton sees playing a potential role in future food production is the perennialization of crops. WSU researchers have been working to perennialize wheat, for instance. With perennial crops, the farmer plants only every few years, or even just once, to get a crop year after year.
Perennial plants hold soil in place and, as Hampton points out, hold moisture, too—a real boon for farmers in the dry and drying regions of the planet.
Michael Neff wants to go back to those dunes. He wants to get back to his roots as a botanist and spend a few days identifying the grasses he saw there. He wants to do it in part because botany’s just plain fun. But, too, his gut tells him there might be something out there, a gene quietly working away that, when crossed with some other species of grass, will let him breed grasses that sip water while holding soil and moisture in place.
After all, plants have had millions of years to evolve under all sorts of climatic regimes. While some scientists work at the molecular level and others with whole plants, we are all still learning to leverage those genetics resources to develop resilient food systems that will keep the hungry season at bay.
CropSyst can model the performance of various crops under a wide range of environmental variables. The open source software was developed by WSU researcher Claudio Stöckle and contributing colleagues from WSU and other institutions. (Courtesy WSU Biological Systems Engineering)