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Grant hopes to build on water-efficient crop yields

sorghum field
FFAR Seeding Solutions grant for $1 million matched with private investment to help diversify farming systems.

The production of food and fiber consumes 70% of the world’s water, placing a burden on farmers to increase water productivity and efficiency. Scientists have developed a genome-to-phenome (G2P) breeding approach that combines crop modeling, genomic prediction and managed-stress experiments to increase water-limited yields in corn.

This transformative approach that improves crops using G2P breeding was developed by project collaborator Corteva. Kansas State University is using a Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) grant to extend the G2P approach in underutilized crops like sorghum. Researchers are optimistic that if water-efficient crops produce greater yields, farmers will be more willing to diversify their fields.

FFAR awarded a $1 million Seeding Solutions grant to Kansas State University to increase water-efficient crop yields. Kansas State University, the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission, Corteva Agriscience, the Collaborative Sorghum Investment Program and the University of California matched the FFAR grant, for a total investment of $2 million.

Many regions in the U.S. struggle with water scarcity, which threatens ecosystem sustainability and farmers’ livelihoods. To combat the effects of water scarcity, farmers need access to more diversified farming systems that balance water conservation with crop productivity and environmental sustainability. Crops like sorghum can diversify the farming system to balance conservation with productivity while supporting the vitality of rural communities. However, the use of these crops has declined partly because of the lag in genetic gain for minor crops compared to other crops like corn and soybeans.

“This project has the potential to increase yields of crops that grow using less water and, when planted alongside leading crops, can better distribute the existing water in the soil and support thriving farms,” FFAR executive director Sally Rockey said. “Using this new approach, Kansas State can boost yields and conserve limited water resources. This work could be a breakthrough for sustainability and profitability.”

Researchers are using sorghum as a model to determine how the G2P breeding approach can effectively lay the groundwork for increased yields for water-efficient crops. The successful implementation of this breeding approach could increase crop diversity and overall productivity of crops in water-scarce environments. This project engages early career plant breeders and scientists to learn and adopt this breeding technique.

“Getting high yield and water efficiency from the same crop is a challenge, but G2P breeding navigates around the trade-offs,” said Dr. Geoffrey Morris, associate professor of agronomy at Kansas State University. “We’re excited to bring the G2P approach to sorghum and other water-efficient crops.”

FFAR’s Seeding Solutions grant program is an open call for bold ideas that address a pressing food and agricultural issue in one of the foundation’s challenge areas. This research supports FFAR’s 2018 Overcoming Water Scarcity Challenge Area, now the Sustainable Water Management Challenge Area. FFAR’s work in this area focuses on increasing water availability and water efficiency for agricultural use, reducing agricultural water pollution and developing water reuse technologies.

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