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How scientists are searching for the crop of the future

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How scientists are searching for the crop of the future

Status: 08/12/2023 09:58 am

Climate change is hitting agriculture particularly hard. In several places in Germany, scientists are testing which crops promise good yields even when it is hot or dry. But that takes time.

By Pirmin Breninek and Leon Willner, BR

The first pods have already formed along the roots. They are still a few millimeters in size, but thanks to their white color they are already easily recognizable between the lumpy earth. Peanut plants like these are a rarity in Bavaria. If Heidi Heuberger has his way, that could change in the coming years.

Heuberger heads the working group on crop diversity at the Bavarian State Research Center for Agriculture. At various locations, agricultural experts from their institute are testing which types of crops and varieties could complement Bavarian agriculture in the future. One of the hopes lies in the peanut trials.

Scientists conduct research at several locations

On a field in Neuses am Berg in Lower Franconia, Heuberger sees it for himself. Otherwise she works in Freising in Upper Bavaria. In Lower Franconia, the state institute runs a research center for agriculture in dry areas.

Because the climatic conditions in Bavaria are different. It usually rains more in the south than in the north. This was particularly drastic last summer: In Würzburg, Lower Franconia, it rained just 13.4 liters per square meter in July 2022 – little more than a watering can, at temperatures of over 30 degrees.

The dry periods have become more frequent recently. Climate researcher Heiko Paeth from the University of Würzburg put it as follows last winter: Since 2015, Würzburg has had an average annual amount of precipitation compared to the long-term average.

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Could be seen more often in German fields in the future: peanut plants

Search for the perfect strains

Because it is getting warmer and drier, farmers are increasingly looking for alternatives, says Heuberger. She has crouched down and is pulling on two of the peanut plants that are planted in the field in Neuses am Berg. The leaves protrude about 15 centimeters from the ground. A pod has formed on the roots of one plant, but not on the other.

The approach of the scientists is based on the principle: trial and error. They know fundamentally that cultivated species such as the peanut prefer warm soil. They know that there are varieties that only need a few months to mature. Which varieties are best suited to which soils, when they should be sown and which techniques should best be used – the scientists want to find out more about this.

In addition to peanuts, trials are currently being carried out on the field in Neuses am Berg with cowpeas, sesame, black cumin and grain millet. All species have so far been unusual in German agriculture. For example, the black-eyed pea is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, similar to Brazil. The sesame varieties that are tested in the field come from Portugal, Bulgaria, India, Iran and Yemen.

It is still too early to draw conclusions about peanuts, black-eyed peas or sesame, says Heuberger. The test series only started this year. The scientists are a bit further with grain millet. At least in Lower Franconia there are signs of initial success.

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Grain millet was already convincing in the drought summer of 2022. It is suitable, for example, as feed for pigs or chickens.

Promising results in grain millet

Grain millet is suitable, for example, as feed for pigs or chickens. “I wouldn’t say that it’s the crop of the future. But it’s at least a crop of the future,” says Janina Goldbach. As a research assistant, she oversees the state institute’s trials on grain millet, “sorghum bicolor” in technical jargon. The roots of the plant go deep. It forms a layer of wax on its stalk and leaves, which protects against evaporation.

The trials in Lower Franconia are already in their third year – and the grain millet was particularly convincing in the drought summer of 2022. At that time, many corn stocks had reached the point where they were not ripe, and farmers had to harvest prematurely. “The grain millet stayed very green and vital until the end,” says Goldbach.

With an average of 7.1 tons per hectare, grain millet in Lower Franconia was even slightly higher than grain maize. In 2022, it only averaged 6.6 tons. The breeding potential for grain millet is far from being exhausted, says Goldbach. Among other things, there are currently test hybrids from the University of Giessen on the test field in Neuses am Berg.

State institute continues to advise planting established crops

There is great interest in the state institute’s variety trials. “Farmers rely on such official results. In this respect, such state trials are to be endorsed,” says Alfons Baumann, consultant at the Bavarian Farmers’ Association in Würzburg. More than 100 farmers came to Neuses am Berg this week for a public field inspection. It was similar a year ago when the state institute had already provided information about grain millet.

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Trend towards meatless nutrition

It is also clear that cultivation must be profitable so that farmers are willing to make the change. This becomes clear during the field inspection. Christian Regnet manages an agricultural estate owned by a regional foundation. He refers to the trend towards a meatless diet. This is one of the reasons why his company has already gained experience with kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils: “There could be a way forward if the population is of course willing to pay a little more for these goods.” There are also other difficulties: some crops, such as chickpeas, are considered to be drought-resistant. If it rains a lot, the culture rots and there is a risk of total failure. That was the case in 2021, reports the farmer. Rain calls for government funding for farmers trying niche crops.

Scientist Heuberger is aware of the risks. She advises farmers to continue to rely on established plants for solid yields. “You have to diversify. You can’t always rely on one culture,” she says. Because even on the test field in Lower Franconia it can be clearly seen: The comparison area with the normal grain maize has grown high this year. It rained significantly more this summer than in 2022. The yield this time is likely to be higher than that of grain millet.

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