AGRICULTURAL scientists at Purdue University have received a $1.1 million grant to identify ways to increase maize's tolerance to drought and heat, according to an announcement.
The work has been funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and will be done through the International Maize & Wheat Improvement Center to develop heat-tolerant maize that will benefit corn production in Southeast Asia as well as the U.S., the announcement said.
Mitch Tuinstra, who holds Purdue's Wickersham Chair of Agronomy and is one of the lead project investigators, said finding ways to grow maize in the hot climates of Southeast Asia could help respond to malnutrition and hunger in that region.
However, he said the work could also benefit corn growers in the U.S. as they adapt to increasing expectations for climate change.
"There's a lot of concern about how climate change will affect corn, but we know almost nothing about thermal tolerance in corn" and other crops, he said.
Tuinstra and co-principal investigator Guir Johal, a professor of botany and plant pathology at Purdue, will measure the effect of temperature on tropical types of maize to identify the genes and physiological processes that allow them to stand up to stresses associated with heat and drought, the announcement said.
They will work with collaborators in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
The project embodies the university's commitment to research that leads to "discovery with impact," said Jay Akridge, dean of the Purdue College of Agriculture. The research has the potential not only to increase maize production in dry, hot regions "but to make important advancements in our efforts to feed the world's growing population," he said.
The project will incorporate "Purdue's strength in plant genetics to address problems that we share with people around the world," Purdue president Mitch Daniels said.
The work is part of a larger private/public partnership that includes Pioneer Hi-Bred and national agricultural research programs in Southeast Asia, the announcement said.
Meanwhile, Washington State University is leading a major, $16.2 million project to similarly study and develop wheat genetics that tolerate the high temperatures found in most growing regions of the world — temperatures that are likely to increase, according to another announcement.
The research is supported by grants from USAID and other parties, the announcement said.
It will involve researchers at Washington State, Kansas State University and DuPont Pioneer, as well as the Directorate of Wheat Research and Indian Council for Agricultural Research, both in India. It's part of the U.S. government's international food security initiative, "Feed the Future."
Researchers aim to have initial sets of "climate-resilient varieties" in five years, said Kulvinder Gill, director of the project and holder of the Vogel Chair for Wheat Breeding & Genetics at Washington State.
He said the research will focus on the North Indian River Plain, which is home to 1 billion people and is challenged by limited water and rising temperatures. (Gill grew up in the heat of a family farm in Punjab, India.)
Like the maize work at Purdue, the wheat work at Washington State will benefit farmers in all wheat production regions of the world, Gill said.
Gill's team will combine conventional and newly developed breeding tools to find genes associated with heat tolerance — "a rarely studied trait with an outsized importance in yields," the announcement said.
Gill explained that a wheat plant's productivity declines dramatically as temperatures increase over 82 degrees F, and the decline is especially significant during the flowering stage, when the plant sets the seeds that are harvested and milled for food.
He said every two degrees over 82 degrees F translates into yield losses of 3-4%, and he noted that parts of the North Indian River Plain can reach 95 degrees F or hotter during wheat's flowering stage.
The project will complement efforts by Gill and others to support wheat during periods of environmental stress, the announcement said, pointing to current work to develop drought-tolerant "desert wheat."
At the same time, researchers from across the Corn Belt are involved in two projects sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify ways to help corn growers with short- and long-term decisions to deal with climate events and make their farms more sustainable, according to climate field specialist Laura Edwards at South Dakota State University's extension office in Aberdeen, S.D.
The projects seek to give growers climate and other data to help them adjust cropping practices, Edwards said, explaining that different management practices using nutrient, soil and water data "can set them up to maintain and even increase productivity and profitability."
Included in the projects is a survey that was conducted in 2011 in which a majority of almost 5,000 farmers said they count most on extension specialists for information, she said.
Furthermore, two-thirds of the farmers surveyed said they believe that the climate is changing, she said, and more important, "they believe they can do something about it."
Drought is their top concern, but pest control, soil erosion and water resources also are ranked high, Edwards said.
South Dakota state climatologist Dennis Todey said the projects are evaluating management practices such as decreased tillage and leaving more crop residue on the fields, which "can better feed soil and keep nutrients in the ground." He said leaving corn leaves and stalks on the ground also can minimize runoff.
The research shows that over a five- to 10-year period, these techniques can produce "better yields and better-quality crops," Edwards said.
Information on these kinds of management and production techniques, backed by data gathered from field sites in eight midwestern states, will provide "a dashboard of tools" for farmers to use in decision-making "not only within a season but looking ahead for many seasons," Todey said.
Both projects also have an educational platform aimed at current and future farmers, including educational materials about agriculture and climate for middle school and high school science and vocational agriculture teachers, the announcement said.