Scientists at the University of Cambridge are promoting what they call “chronoculture” as a way to make global agricultural systems more sustainable by leveraging the power of the crops’ own circadian rhythms.
“We live on a rotating planet, and that has a huge impact on our biology – and on the biology of plants,” says Dr. Alex Webb, the Chair of Cell Signalling in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences.
“We’ve discovered that plants grow much better when their internal clock is matched to the environment they grow in,” adds Webb. He is senior author of chronoculture research published Friday in the journal Science.
The plant’s internal clock helps determine its water needs, its photosynthesis process, its flowering time, and ultimately its yield. The genetic mechanisms driving production also remain fairly consistent across species.
Science already has an evolving understanding of the underlying genes that regulate a plant’s circadian rhythms and how the genes may be modified, but other techniques come into play when thinking about how crop yields might be improved through alignment with the time and seasons.
Drones, for example, can be used with sensors to monitor plant growth and collect data, giving farmers an advantage in knowing the best time to apply treatments with more precision. Using a pesticide at a certain time of day, or watering at night at an optimal point in the plant’s circadian cycle, can be more beneficial for the plant while reducing waste and runoff.
“Farmers could use less of these resources. This is a simple win that could save money and contribute to sustainability,” Webb says. “Using water more efficiently is an important sustainability goal for agriculture.”
When growing indoors – as is becoming more common with vertical farming – there are significant energy savings to be made if the levels of light and heating are better timed to the plant’s genetic needs. There is even a window for chronoculture practices to help reduce food waste after plants are harvested, because pest damage will decrease if the plant’s internal rhythms are maintained despite the fact that it’s no longer growing.
“Plants’ responses to pests are optimized,” Webb explains. “They’re most resistant to pests at the time of day the pests are active. So just a simple light in the refrigerated lorry going on and off to mimic the day/night cycle would use the plants’ internal clock to help improve storage and reduce waste.”
Webb says more research is needed into how chronoculture practices will make agriculture more climate-friendly, and how to boost yields and reduce inputs for specific crops in different parts of the world. But the Cambridge research team is already confident that it will prove a smart strategy for feeding a growing global population.