Plants can be bred for a good production under less favourable conditions, such as on silty soil or with a lower nitrogen input. Scientists of Plant Research International are searching for genes that are playing a role in these types of plant properties.
Crops in the Netherlands are growing under optimum conditions. Their nitrogen and phosphorus needs are continually met, in the greenhouse as well as on the field. And soils or growing media are always adapted to meet plant needs.
But growing conditions are not always that ideal. Non-Western countries have large areas of poor soil and the combination of high temperatures and little water causes salinisation of the soil in Middle-Eastern countries. The ideal conditions may neither persist in the Netherlands. To reduce leaching of nutrients, the government is enforcing a step-wise reduction of the fertilisation of plants. This may locally lead to deficiencies. And coastal agricultural soils will be salinising slowly due to evaporation exceeding precipitation.
Cultivars with a low nitrogen demand
Cultivars with a lower nutrient demand or a better drought-tolerance would then be a solution. These would allow cropping of soils where this is now still impossible as result of nutrient shortages. And such cultivars would also enable Dutch farmers and growers to meet the stricter fertilisation criteria and thus reduce nitrogen en phosphorus leaching. And it would also mean that new crops for, e.g., the production of bio-energy could then be grown on lower quality soils so that they do not need to compete with food crops.
Our scientists are searching for differences between plants in, e.g., nitrogen uptake, nitrogen utilisation, or salt tolerance. They do this in the field as well as in the greenhouse. They are subsequently searching for the genes that are responsible for those properties. With those genes as such or with molecular markers, i.e., a characteristic DNA fragment, they are giving breeders the tools to actually produce such cultivars.The scientists are primarily working on the more efficient use of nitrogen by potato and spinach. And they are also working on salt tolerance in tomato, barley and potato.
Protecting crops from the elements, Plant Life feb 2011