With the North American drought ended last year according to the USDA, it still affects parts of the United States and dries out plant life in its wake. The drought reached 80 percent of the country’s agricultural land, and many of the impacts of the stunted food production will be felt this year at supermarkets and restaurants. It’s no surprise, then, that a large question in agricultural biotechnology is how to more effectively combat drought for the present and future. This is where Michigan State University shines, presenting a way for plants to make even better use of the water they receive.
The subsurface water retention technology (SWRT), developed by MSU professor Alvin Smucker, is a complicated name for an ingenious and surprisingly simple concept. Think about what happens when a field of crops receives water. The water travels down through the soil and gets soaked up by the roots, but some water gets past the roots and is lost to the earth below. This is an especially large problem in dry, sandy soil, like that in drought conditions. Smucker’s SWRT utilizes membranes placed at various depths under the surface which retain water and redirect excess water toward other roots in the process. This way, the plants can better capitalize on every drop of water.
(Membranes spaced between roots, courtesy research.msu.edu)
These membranes are much more efficient than the previously tested asphalt barriers; they are far faster to install and last longer than their rigid counterparts. Also, since they are flexible, they can work around root systems to more effectively direct water to the right places and change as roots grow. Preliminary test runs show the membranes allow for 145% more cucumber yield and 175% more corn yield in sandy soils, according to a MSU article.
Since SWRT is optimized for crop growth in dry, arid land, it has applications beyond the farms of Michigan. As Smucker, who specializes in soil biophysics, phrases it in a MSU news release,
“This technology has the potential to change lives and regional landscapes domestically and internationally where highly permeable, sandy soils have prohibited the sustainable production of food.”
The membranes can be used to promote agriculture in places previously unsuitable for growing in addition to protecting against dry spells. With that in mind, Smucker and teams of scientists and engineers will focus next on implementing SWRT in semi-arid and arid regions of the southwestern and midwestern U.S., where farms are still recovering from last year’s heat.
The development and field testing of SWRT was funded in part by the Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. For more information about funding at Michigan State University, see our MSU funding statistics page here:
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