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Rooting for Sustainable Agriculture

Plant scientists collaborate to create food for the future

Julianne Beck | August 16, 2023
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field research site in Mettawa, Illinois
Kernza®, a perennial wheat, grows in a field research site in Mettawa, Illinois at the Kurtis Conservation Foundation.

The historical roots of the agriculture industry run deep. Yet, according to plant scientists, the industry must incorporate new, sustainable practices in order to feed a growing world population long term.

These practices include a transition from a reliance on annual plants including wheat, to perennial plants such as Kernza®, a wheat alternative. While annual crop plants need to be replanted yearly and can degrade soil over time, perennial crops have more substantial roots systems that travel further into the soil and help build healthy microbial systems—ultimately regenerating fertile soil to support future growing seasons.

Perennial agriculture research is vital to the development of viable food systems for the future. This summer, it was a key topic during a multi-day gathering of collaborators including researchers from the Program in Plant Biology and Conservation at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. The gathering was the annual meeting of the New Roots for Restoration Biology Integration Institute, which is a research partnership funded by the National Science Foundation.

“We still have a lot to learn about perennial plants in agricultural and natural ecosystem restoration,” said Nyree Zerega, director of the Program in Plant Biology and Conservation at the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and a conservation scientist with the Negaunee Institute for Plant Conservation Science and Action at the Garden. “We got involved in this work to advance our understanding of how perennial plants interact with one another both above and below ground, with an aim to apply findings to improve crop yield and restoration work. We are also engaging many people at different levels of their education and career, and working to help diversify this field,” she added.

In 2018, Zerega, Louise Egerton-Warburton, an adjunct professor at Northwestern and conservation scientist at the Garden, and others began collaborating with the Land Institute on perennial agriculture research, and set up an experimental agriculture study. Then, in 2020, they were invited to join the New Roots initiative along with additional colleagues and students.

Despite the joy and excitement they find in their collaboration, it’s a venture they take quite seriously. “Agriculture accounts for significant amounts of land use change and carbon emissions across the globe,” noted Zerega, who is a faculty affiliate at Northwestern’s Paula M. Trienens Institute for Sustainability and Energy. “The major grain crops are annuals that must be replanted each year. This process requires a lot of resources including fertilizers, irrigation, machinery, and money. It can be disruptive to soil health and can decrease soil carbon sequestration capability.” Soil carbon sequestration is the ability of healthy soil and the organisms within it, such as deep plant roots, to capture and retain carbon dioxide for long periods of time.

Northwestern Adjunct Professor Andrea Kramer in tall grasses.
Northwestern Adjunct Professor Andrea Kramer, also of the Chicago Botanic Garden, participates in a tour duirng the New Roots gathering. As a part of the initiative, Kramer is working with a team of other Garden scientists and graduate students to investigate how within-species variation in above- and below-ground traits of prairie species influences competition and ecosystem function in restored habitats.

Multiple research groups are tackling their own specific questions as a part of the New Roots collaboration in an effort to expedite solutions. According to Allison Miller, Principal Investigator at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and Director of New Roots for Restoration, “The questions we are asking are; as you select for increased yield, do we see changes in root structure, do we see changes in root size, do we see changes in lifespan, do we see changes in stem thickness or the number of leaves or whatever we can think to measure.” The span of research projects extend from studying activities below ground to those above ground. She added that, “we think it is possible to select for increased yield and still maintain these aspects of long-lived plants.

”In part, scientists look to naturally existing ecosystems to inspire a vision of how the agroecosystem can evolve. In nature, multiple species co-habitat in one location, and many are also long lived. “Growing different perennial crops together provides an opportunity to decrease resource use, increase soil health and carbon sequestration, and produce food. It is one approach to restore agroecosystems,” said Zerega.

The level and rapid pace of innovation in this field was evident during the summer gathering at the Garden, where researchers presented their recent findings. Topics covered restoration ecology, plant community and microbial ecology, natural systems agriculture, and the temporal dynamics of perennial plant biology.

Graduate students in the Plant Biology program also discussed research underway at their field site in Mettawa, Illinois, which is generously provided by Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra through their Kurtis Conservation Foundation. There, perennial row crops have been planted and the students have monitored the soil over the past five years to better understand how the soil quality changes over time. Thus far they have found that carbon levels have improved in the presence of perennial crops.

During the event, students of all levels were also invited to tour local natural area restorations and the field research site, in hopes of inspiring the next generation of plant scientists.