Two University of Florida-led teams have been awarded federal grants totaling $6.9 million for projects to develop heat-resistant corn and develop Extension programs to help farmers cope with climate variability and climate change.
The grants, for $5 million and $1.9 million, were announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both projects are led by faculty members with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and involve personnel from other institutions.
The projects were supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative competitive grants from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, as part of a program on climate change adaptation and mitigation.
The corn project, awarded a five-year, $5 million grant, focuses on finding ways to lessen the harmful effects of heat on starch formation in corn kernels, said Curt Hannah, principal investigator for the project and a UF professor emeritus in horticultural sciences. Corn kernels are about 70 percent starch, a carbohydrate.
“There are already data showing that even in the Midwest, where most U.S. corn is grown, temperatures are already above optimal levels for starch production and yield right now,” Hannah said.
“It’s projected to get hotter, and increased temperatures are going to mean less corn harvested unless we develop new heat-resistant varieties.”
The corn genome has been fully sequenced, so researchers will survey it for genes that control factors related to yield, and will pay particular attention to those producing heat-sensitive enzymes, he said.
Field-test new varieties
They’ll also test mutant corn genes to see if any confer heat resistance to biochemical processes involved in kernel development. Eventually, they’ll engineer and field-test new varieties.
Florida is the nation’s No. 1 producer of fresh sweet corn and produces a significant amount of field corn. The state has a hot, humid climate ideal for challenging new varieties intended for use in the Midwest, Hannah said.
Other institutions in the project are Iowa State University and the University of Wisconsin.
The climate Extension project was awarded a two-year, $1.9 million grant, and is eligible for three years of additional funding, said principal investigator Clyde Fraisse, an assistant professor in agricultural and biological engineering.
The team will focus on both short-term and long-term strategies to keep Southeastern agriculture productive and sustainable, Fraisse said. The project focuses on climate change and climate variability in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
Fraisse said the team’s basic approach is to address climate variability — a well-known, constant challenge for producers — and use it as a bridge to discuss climate change, a long-term process.
“It’s difficult if you start talking to a farmer about what may happen at the end of the century if they’re worried about what may happen at the end of the year,” he said.
The team will educate county Extension faculty on climate change, facilitate transfer of new technologies to producers, relay information about producers’ needs back to researchers, conduct workshops and field days, and create educational materials including new web-based tools available through AgroClimate, a web-based climate information and decision support system developed by the Southeast Climate Consortium, at http://www.agroclimate.org.
The project will include a Regional Advisory Panel, made up of producers, technology providers, policy makers and crop association representatives from all participating states. By ensuring industry has a voice in the project, team members hope to keep their activities focused on stakeholders’ needs.
Other institutions involved are Auburn University, Clemson University, Florida A&M University, Florida State University and the University of Georgia. In addition, the team will work closely with the Florida Farm Bureau Federation and similar organizations in the other states.