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ARS Home » Northeast Area » Ithaca, New York » Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture & Health » Plant, Soil and Nutrition Research » Research » Research Project #445468

Research Project: CERCA - Circular Economy that Reimagines Corn Agriculture (CERCA: On-Farm Nitrogen Recycling)

Location: Plant, Soil and Nutrition Research

Project Number: 8062-21000-052-005-T
Project Type: Trust Fund Cooperative Agreement

Start Date: Oct 1, 2023
End Date: Sep 30, 2026

US grain farms are the most productive agricultural systems on earth, generating over $130 billion in farm gate revenue and supporting the global food supply as well as portions of the energy system. While these are highly efficient agricultural systems, they contribute to climate change, especially through greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrogen fertilizer is the largest energy input for corn (maize); moreover, excess nitrogen results in water pollution and 6% of the entire US greenhouse gas emissions (55% of agricultural emissions) through nitrous oxide releases. Improvements to genetics and management practices are necessary to ensure these agricultural systems remain resilient despite increasing climate variability and to minimize the contributions of agriculture to climate change drivers. Researchers and farmers have shown that perennial biofuel crops and annual winter wheat can improve yield and are resilient to extreme weather. We propose to leverage this potential in maize by reimagining its agricultural system. Vision: To transform US grain farmland into a net-negative component of a circular bio-economy and reduce global greenhouse gases. This research aims to create a Circular Economy that Reimagines Corn Agriculture (CERCA) - converting maize to an extended season annual with reduced environmental impacts through increased uptake and storage of unused nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer.

Achieving these goals will likely take 15 years, but in this first phase the CERCA project will focus on three areas: (1) Modeling of plants, farms, environments, and economics to determine the most important combination of traits and US environments likely to benefit from new cropping systems. (2) Trait Discovery - breeders, geneticists, and physiologists will evaluate related wild-species and maize landraces that have frost/cold tolerance (seedling survival, germination, and establishment) and recycle nutrients (grain nitrogen, phosphorus, and remobilization of nitrogen to roots). Germplasm source and genetic complexity will be determined for each candidate trait. (3) Trait Development through incremental stacking of candidate traits that have substantial impact (based on modeling) and high genetic/physiological tractability; those traits will, subsequently, be tested across the US via coordinated trials and collaborations with seed companies and growers.