The green revolution created hardier rice that needs more fertilizer than older varieties. A gene that enhances plants’ ability to absorb nitrogen could be used to breed high-yield varieties of rice, wheat and other staple crops that would need less fertilizer, researchers report on 15 August in Nature 1 . That could slash costs for farmers worldwide, and help to limit the environmental damage that occurs when nitrogen-rich water and soil wash from farm fields into rivers and oceans. The research focused on crops bred during the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s, a period when agricultural scientists boosted yields by breeding smaller, hardier versions of common crops. Farmers used these alongside improved irrigation methods, strong pesticides and efficient fertilizers. That sent the global harvest of cereal crops soaring from 741 million tonnes in 1961 to 1.62 billion in 1985. But the latest study shows that there is still room for improvement, says Kathryn Barton, a plant scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. “If you thought that these green-revolution varieties were it — that they’re the end of the line — you’re wrong, because there is more we can do,” she says. That’s because modern crops […]

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