Washington: Breeding crops that have roots a metre deeper in the soil could dramatically lower CO2 levels in the atmosphere, a leading University of Manchester scientist has claimed.
Professor Douglas Kell argues that developing crops that produce roots more deeply in the ground could harvest more carbon from the air, and make crops more drought resistant.
Kell, professor of Bioanalytical Science at the University as well as Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has also devised a carbon calculator that can show the potential benefits of crops that burrow more deeply in the ground.
With this, he has calculated that – depending on the time it takes them to break down –breeding crops that could cover present cropland areas but that had roots a metre deeper in the soil could double the amount of carbon captured from the environment.
He said: “This doubling of root biomass from a nominal 1m to a nominal 2m is really the key issue, together with the longevity of the roots and carbon they secrete and sequester below-ground.
“What matters is not so much what is happening now as what might be achieved with suitable breeding of plants with deep and reasonably long-lived roots. Many such plants exist, but have not been bred for agriculture.
“In addition to the simple carbon sequestration that this breeding could imply – possibly double that of common annual grain crops – such plants seem to mobilise and retain nutrients and water very effectively over extended periods, thus providing resistance to drought, flooding and other challenges we shall face from climate change.
“While there is a way to go before such crops might have, for example, the grain yields of present day cereals, their breeding and deployment seems a very promising avenue for sustainable agriculture,” he added.
The study has been published in the journal Annals of Botany.