LSU awarded $10 million grant to improve sustainability and profitability of rice farming through research innovations that advance climate-resilient crops.
⋅ BY LORI TYLER GULA ⋅
The project is one of seven recently announced by NIFA and is funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) program, which made a total investment of $70 million in sustainable agricultural projects that integrate research, education and Extension efforts. The goal is to establish robust, resilient, and climate-smart food and agricultural systems.
This innovative program focuses on a broad base of needed research, education, and Extension solutions — from addressing labor challenges and promoting land stewardship to correcting climate change impacts in agriculture and filling critical needs in food and nutrition. The SAS program area is part of NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), designed to improve plant and animal production and sustainability, and human and environmental health. AFRI is the nation’s leading and largest competitive grants program for agricultural sciences. These grants are available to eligible colleges, universities, and other research organizations.
“These research investments will help transform the U.S. food and agricultural system to increase production in sustainable ways as the United Nations projects a world population of 9.8 billion by 2050,” said Acting NIFA Director Dr. Dionne Toombs. “These visionary projects will improve the supply of affordable, safe, nutritious, and accessible agricultural products, while fostering economic development and rural prosperity in America.”
Extreme weather patterns pose challenges
While rice production contributes $550 million to Louisiana’s economy, extreme weather patterns due to climate change pose serious challenges to enhancing productivity. The project outcomes aim to help rice growers in the southern U.S. make the right decisions at the right time to reduce yield losses, land use, water, and energy consumption.
“We will equip the current and next generation of rice farmers, consultants, and researchers with the necessary knowledge and skillset to embrace the new climate-smart agriculture technologies and production practices,” said Prasanta Subudhi, the lead investigator of the project and a crop geneticist in the LSU AgCenter School of Plant, Environmental, and Soil Sciences.
Knowledge gained from the project will increase the speed and accuracy of identifying rice genotypes with desirable combinations of genes for improved adaptation to a changing climate.
The specific objectives of the project are:
■ to assess the socio-economic and environmental impacts of current crop management practices and identify barriers to adopting novel technologies and practices.
■ to develop novel genotypes with enhanced tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses; develop and optimize environmentally friendly crop management practices.
■ to implement a robust Extension program to disseminate the concepts and benefits of sustainable farming technology.
The project’s collaborating institutions include Clemson University, Mississippi State University, Texas A&M AgriLife, and the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. Jai Rohila, a research agronomist for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service based at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, is also involved in the grant.
Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station scientist Stan De Guzman will work to develop rice lines with heat stress tolerance using advanced genetic techniques. The process includes evaluating different rice lines for grain quality and agronomic and physiological traits under drought stress in field conditions using the alternate wetting and drying growing method. He will then work to incorporate those genetic traits into elite rice lines and varieties with drought and heat tolerance.
Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station scientist Nick Bateman will conduct a study that monitors the changes in insect pressure when moving from flooded rice to the alternate wetting and drying method for water savings. Bateman said rice water weevil larvae are substantially reduced when moving to alternate wetting and drying. Still, other insects like armyworms, rice billbugs, and chinch bugs are prone to pop up. He will look at environmentally friendly pesticides to control those populations.
“It’s not so much about controlling the insects but controlling the stress,” Bateman said. “Since part of the overall project is to reduce water use, we will be looking at what other insect pressures arise when you take it off a flood.”
Rice is among Arkansas’s top three agricultural commodities, worth approximately $1.2 billion in 2020. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, the state typically produces 56% to 58% of the nation’s long-grain rice.
Scientists at Mississippi State will develop genetic mapping tools to identify the genes associated with stress tolerance, including projected changes in climate. “Being able to identify these genes will help rice breeders develop climate-resilient cultivars, or plant varieties,” said Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station agronomist Raja Reddy.
Ranking sixth in the nation, Mississippi rice production is a $97 million industry, with over 115,000 farmed acres. In recent years, increasing extremes and unpredictability in weather patterns have begun to threaten the stability of this agricultural commodity.
“Like much of the U.S. Mid-South, Mississippi is seeing greater extremes in our high and low temperatures and greater intensities of drought during the early season,” Reddy said. “These conditions and higher temperatures during flowering are significant impediments to rice yield and grain quality.”
Reddy said researchers, who collectively have many years of experience studying rice cultivation and breeding, also are planning Extension activities to help growers optimize their resources — particularly water and nutrients — to get the best growth and yield from newly developed cultivars.
The five collaborating institutions are members of the Southern Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors, which represents 15 agricultural research centers at land-grant universities in the southern U.S. Southern region scientists collaborate to conduct research and outreach focused on conserving the region’s natural resources and sustainably feeding a growing global population.
“Southern U.S. rice production is concentrated in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas, and rice research is a major component of the research portfolios of the agricultural experiment station in these states,” said Michael Salassi, interim LSU AgCenter executive associate vice president and director of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station. “This grant will provide the many rice scientists across the region the opportunity to work collaboratively to evaluate alternate climate-smart production practices associated with a major U.S. food crop.”