Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. has developed a plant trait for salt tolerance that could bring millions of acres of abandoned or marginal cropland damaged by salts into use. Results in several crops, including switchgrass, have shown levels of salt tolerance not seen before.
Ceres reported that its researchers tested the effects of very high salt concentrations and also seawater from the Pacific Ocean, which contains mixtures of salts in high-concentration, on improved energy grass varieties growing in its California greenhouses. Energy grasses, such as sorghum, miscanthus and switchgrass, are highly productive sources of biomass, a carbon-neutral feedstock used for both biofuel production and electricity generation.
Today, we have energy crops thriving on seawater alone. The goal, of course, is not for growers to water their crops with seawater, but to enable cropland abandoned because of salt or seawater effects to be put to productive uses.—Richard Hamilton, Ceres President and CEO
Currently, there are more than one billion acres of abandoned cropland globally that could benefit from this trait and others in Ceres’ pipeline, including 15 million acres of salt-affected soils in the US. The company now plans to evaluate energy crops with its proprietary salt-tolerant trait at field scale. If results are confirmed, biofuel and biopower producers will have more choices for locating new facilities, gaining greater productivity on marginal land and displacing even greater amounts of fossil fuels.
Chief Scientific Officer Richard Flavell said that Ceres’ salt-tolerant trait could provide significant benefits to food production, too. In conventional plant breeding, breakthroughs in one crop have little bearing on another crop. However, by using techniques of modern biology to develop traits, researchers can duplicate this trait much more easily, and extend the benefits from energy to staple food crops.
“Soils containing salt and other growth-limiting substances restrict crop production in many locations in the world. This genetic breakthrough provides new opportunities to overcome the effects of salt,” said Flavell. In food crops, Ceres has confirmed the trait in rice to date and is preparing additional testing in others.
Flavell believes that salt-tolerant crops need to be combined with better land and water management practices as well as with agronomic techniques that minimize salt build-up in the soil. Furthermore, like first-generation traits, plant traits developed by Ceres can be stacked together to revolutionize plant yields.
When we begin stacking together salt tolerance, drought tolerance and traits that allow plants to require less nitrogen fertilizer, we can deliver significant productivity and yield increases with fewer inputs than used in the first Green Revolution, as well as valuable increases on marginal or abandoned cropland that does not currently sustain economic yields.—Richard Flavell