Bonn, Germany and Adelaide, Australia (February 2020) – South Australian scientists using wild relatives of alfalfa to breed drought-tolerant varieties will be able to continue their world-leading research.
The South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) has received a grant from the Crop Trust to extend its work to improve drought tolerance in alfalfa (Medicago sativa) for another two years.
“It is fitting that South Australia continues the important work in developing drought-tolerant alfalfa varieties given it’s the driest state in the driest continent in the world,” said Acting Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development Dan van Holst Pellekaan. “SARDI is renowned for its leadership in developing drought-tolerant crop varieties.”
Alfalfa (also known as lucerne) is a high-yielding, high-protein, perennial forage legume, which makes it a top feed for livestock. It adds nitrogen to the soil and improves soil structure. Pasture and fodder crops deliver important ecological and climate regulatory functions as well as fueling food production. For subsistence and small-scale farmers in Kazakhstan and China, alfalfa – cut and stored away as hay or silage – is the lifeline that sees their cows, sheep or goats survive through long, cold winters.
“But alfalfa yields in these environments are increasingly under threat from impacts of climate change, with decreasing water supply and high summer temperatures threatening future production,” said SARDI Project Leader Dr. Alan Humphries. “The ultimate aim of this project is to breed new resilient varieties that will benefit farmers who live in environments where food production is challenging and who are often poorly equipped to deal with climate change.”
Crop wild relatives are genetically related to common commercial crops but have not been domesticated. They often contain beneficial traits that have been lost in modern crops. Crop wild relatives may hold increased potential to be more tolerant of pests and diseases and adverse weather conditions.
In the first phase of the project (2015–2018), the researchers set up a network of field trials to evaluate crop wild relatives of alfalfa for drought tolerance in Australia, Chile, Kazakhstan and China. Wild relatives of alfalfa were sourced from all over the world, including samples from contrasting environments in Chile, Cyprus, Iran, Spain and Russia. These plants were selected largely because they were known for their extreme drought tolerance, and they expanded the overall diversity of the material being used.
Hybrid lines bred from these wild plants crossed with modern alfalfa varieties are performing far beyond the researchers’ expectations. In Inner Mongolia (Northern China) some lines have already survived three long winters of -35ºC. These crop wild relative-derived lines are hardy since they combine the numerous adaptation traits of wild plants found in extreme environments with the domestic varieties bred for high forage yield.
“During this new phase of the project (2019–2020) we will continue working with our partners in China, Chile and Kazakhstan to further evaluate these promising new pre-bred lines,” Alan said. “We will also investigate the potential for small-scale silage production to improve the nutritional value of conserved fodder for small holder farmers in Kazakhstan and China. And in Chile, we are promoting alfalfa as a new, rainfed grazing alternative for farmers.”
Crop Trust pre-breeding project coordinator Dr. Benjamin Kilian emphasized the importance of the work. “The Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that the global area of pasture and fodder crops is 3.5 billion hectares. That means 26% of the world’s land and 70% of the world agricultural area is covered by these crops, which include alfalfa. This work will have global benefits for climate change adaptation and mitigation and will have an immediate impact on the lives of smallholder farmers,” said Benjamin.