What’s Needed to Grow Food in Suboptimal Conditions?

- Molly Cadle-Davidson

The world is constantly changing, and these changes are not favorable to agriculture. We have a shrinking land base on which crops can be grown due to urbanization. As you’ve heard many times, we have an increasing population, which means more food is needed. And, we also have a changing climate; land that was once considered optimal for growing crops is becoming marginalized. This means we need to focus our efforts on how to best grow crops in suboptimal conditions — something that has countless impacts.

In thinking about this, I’ve simplified the areas of focus into three general categories. These include improved root growth, abiotic stress tolerance, and improving yields and end use quality.

The recent focus on roots and soil health is for good reason. While it’s always been important, researchers and agronomists know that together they hold untapped potential. Much of what happens beneath the soil’s surface is still a mystery, but everyday we are learning more and more. Much of that knowledge will translate to yield.

In my research, and that of my colleagues, our biologicals promote bigger and deeper root masses, which give crops the ability to better access and use nutrients. These larger root masses not only allow the plant to access more nutrients in the soil, but these biologicals also allow the roots to more efficiently use the nutrients that are already present. For example, we know that Trichoderma enables phosphate bioavailability. Plus, no matter the tillage management system being used, these improved root masses help with soil retention, preventing wind and water erosion.

Keeping the soil that we have in the healthiest state possible is of utmost importance. As more marginal lands are forced into production, we must find ways to make this land just as productive, if not more than, as those optimal acres. Biologicals have proven to help plants cope with abiotic stressors, such as drought, heat, soil salinity or too much water.

Helping plants grow and produce a crop with less water has been a primary focus for the seed industry, and biologicals provide a natural solution. During times when a crop is water stressed, they help it to better cope in that stressed environment. But in areas where water conservation policies have been put in place, growers can use biologicals as a management tool to get the same or comparable yield while using less water as a whole.

Yield is the ultimate measurement for the industry. We must be in the mindset of producing the same yield in suboptimal conditions, or more yield from fewer acres. Either way, biologicals are one set of tools in the toolbox to assist farmers in dealing with an ever-changing environment.