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Spring 2012
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The Science of Nutritious,
Productive Plants

Green Beans

Green BeansGreen Beans are Kenya’s most important horticultural export, earning farmers five to 10 times more than the dry beans they traditionally grow. However, they can currently only be grown at high altitudes, where the climate is more temperate but land is harder to come by. Susceptibility to high temperatures and bean rust fungus have been further barriers to the expansion of this lucrative market. By tapping traits in varieties developed in Cornell’s breeding program, Phillip Griffiths has been able to offer some solutions and create new opportunities for low altitude farmers. He now hopes to apply lessons learned while combatting black rot in New York cabbage to another important African vegetable, sukuma wiki.



RiceRice breeder Susan McCouch, Ph.D. ’90, is a pioneer in using wild rice varieties to enhance the performance of modern, high-yielding cultivars and preserve the diversity of the crop. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) International Network and Resource Center, also based at Cornell, advocates for the increased productivity and sustainability of irrigated rice through changes in the management of plants, soil, water, and nutrients. SRI researchers have found that simple methods such as transplanting seedlings at the right time, spacing them farther apart, and keeping soil aerated can lead to twice as much yield and up to 50 percent less water. Similar practices are now being adopted for other crops, including wheat, sugarcane and millet.



WheatWheat yields need to increase one ton per hectare by 2020 to keep pace with the growing population. Rising temperatures and new, virulent diseases like Ug99 pose additional challenges and are already exerting pressure on developing countries, where wheat provides 20 percent of the daily protein intake for the average person. Luckily, enhanced breeding techniques, such as the shuttle breeding practiced by adjunct professor Ravi Singh and the molecular marker work done by geneticist Mark Sorrells, are helping to create new durable, disease resistant varieties that will also increase yields. And the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, based at Cornell under the leadership of Ronnie Coffman Ph.D. ‘71, continues to lead an international effort to mitigate the threat.



cornCorn is essential to the diets of hundreds of millions of people in developing countries, yet the staple often does not provide a sufficient supply of vitamin A; this, in turn, can lead to health problems like xerophthalmia, an eye disease that afflicts some 40 million children. Corn contains carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, which our bodies convert to vitamin A, but very few varieties have naturally high carotenoid levels. Edward Buckler, an adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics, has discovered two genes in corn linked to higher beta-carotene levels; certain variants of those genes could increase provitamin A levels up to 16-fold. He is also studying the flowering time of corn, which affects the crop’s adaption to different environments across the globe, and drought tolerance.




Going Local, On a Global Scale