CropWorld 2010: Large roots could save the planet

THE key to saving the planet lies in the size of a crop’s roots, according to a novel theory put forward by the head of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

BBSRC chief executive Professor Douglas Kell told the CropWorld conference that doubling the size of crop roots could make a massive contribution to reducing atmospheric CO2 levels, as well as ensuring more efficient nutrient and water usage.

He was speaking during a session in which various figures from the worlds of agricultural scientific and crop production were asked to come up with their ‘big idea’ about how to feed the world.

“My big idea is to produce plants with big roots to save the planet,” Prof Kell told the conference in London.

 “We need to recognise that we have spent rather too much time looking at above ground traits. The solution to sustainability in terms of water usage, nutrient usage and in particular carbon sequestration, which also leads to better soil structure, is to develop large bushy roots,” Prof Kell said. 

In the case of wheat, for example, he said the aim would be to double typical root length from one to two metres.

He claimed that applying the principle globally across a range of plants grown for food and other purposes could ultimately reduce atmospheric CO2 levels by 500 parts per million. “That is a huge effect and one well worth pursuing,” he said.

He said progress made in recent years in genomics, mapping the genes of plants, could be the ‘driving force’ that turns an ambitious plan like this into reality. He said the technology could provide plant breeders with the means to ‘rapidly determine’ which elements of the plant genome are responsible for root size, rather than ‘flying in the dark’ and breeding only on the basis of observable phenotype.

Prof Kell said stressed that this was just one of numerous ideas being pursued by scientists funded by BBSRC he could have chosen to answer the question.

He admitted he was not aware of any other scientists pursuing the concept as they look to improve the sustainability of food production.

“It is very early doors. People have not got it - yet,” he told Farmers Guardian.

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