Winter is Not Coming: Pushing back the Frost Wall for more food, more fuel, more money, more everything

December 5, 2016 |

bd-ts-120616-winter-smWinter barley and early tomatoes may sound like a dull foundation upon which to further a revolution in agriculture — but then again, the Spanish hardly developed California in two centuries of sovereignty because they couldn’t see the point. As Master Po said in Kung Fu, “Because a man can see, he does not look.”

In the end, among the many Walls and Bridges that have been discussed in the last wave of political campaigning, the Wall that may have the most impact is the Frost Wall.

On the other side of the Frost Wall, crops won;t grow, land doesn’t yield. Food, fuel, fiber and materials options begin to dwindle in the cold.

And, we’re told by demographers have 9 billion people and titanic energy demands by 2050, and the planet isn’t getting any bigger — which is why, just occasionally, questions of we will feed, fuel and clothe ourselves in the near future pushes Angelina Jolie off the front page while we consider the potential for salvation offered by new technology.

So, what do you do about the Frost Wall. Generally, you can grow more with the first harvest — that’s yield improvement. Or, you can grow more in the extreme north — that’s crop expansion. Or, you can grow a second harvest, that’s season expansion. Usually, we hear about the first. Today, we learn a bit more about the other two.

Extra harvest: winter barley

What happened: At Virginia Tech, a team led by Dr. Wynse Brooks and Dr. Carl Griffey developed new and improved winter barley cultivars, used to make ethanol using the fermentation process that Kevin Hicks and John Nghiem developed at the ERRC previously.

John Nghiem reports:

“Among the ten cultivars tested, which included five hulled and five hull-less, AMAZE 10 stood out as the best in terms of ethanol yield. With this cultivar we were able to get 2.61 gallons ethanol per bushel, which is very close to the ethanol yield from corn. The quality of the DDGS products also was very good with high protein contents (45 wt% on dry basis). The results obtained in our work demonstrated that new and improved winter barley cultivars, in particular AMAZE 10, would be good feedstocks for fuel ethanol production on a commercial scale.”

Why it matters: Late May or early June harvest of winter barley allows a full soybean crop to be grown afterwards in the same crop year, which will be followed by corn and then winter barley again the year after. This practice will allow a two-year, three-crop rotation, which ultimately results in more grain being produced on the same acreage with less nutrient loss to watersheds and sensitive areas such as the Chesapeake Bay.

Season expansion: early tomatoes

If you haven’t heard about CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, mark it down, you’re going to hear an awful lot about it. And relax, it isn’t used to make Frankenfoods.

Peter Tarr at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory reports:

“Using a simple genetic method to tweak genes native to two popular varieties of tomato plants, Zach Lippman’s team has devised a rapid way to make them flower and produce ripe fruit 2 weeks earlier than commercial breeders are currently able to do. 

“This means more plantings per growing season and thus higher yield. In this case, it also means that the plant can be grown in latitudes more northerly than currently possible – an important attribute as the earth’s climate warms.

“We think this work is a compelling demonstration of the power of gene editing – using CRISPR technology – to rapidly improve yield traits in crop breeding,” says CSHL Associate Professor Zachary Lippman, who led the research.”

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The basic idea here? Plants generally have a built-in trigger for flowering (which leads to fruiting) based on daylight length. If you can suppress that genetic tendency to wait for the longer days, you get flowers and fruit earlier, or you get them at the same time in higher latitudes.

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Why it’s important: As Tarr notes, “Applications can go far beyond the tomato family, he says, to include food crops like maize, soybean, and wheat that so much of the world depends upon.” Learn more here.

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