In the pantheon of climate-smart crops, cassava gets top billing as the “Rambo” of plant varieties. 

Known for its hardiness in water-challenged environments, cassava's  unmatched resilience to punishing drought conditions has propelled the root vegetable to “darling” status among food crop researchers in the developing world.  

But recent Virginia Tech research shows another crop might just be the “Steve Austin” to cassava’s “Rambo.” A little known grain crop in the West, adlai grass is a “bionic” plant that is exceptional for its versatility, hardiness, and strength as a bio-pump crop; and it promises to be a worthy weapon in combating the weather-induced food shortages of an increasingly warming planet.  

Virginia Tech’s Sustainable Agriculture Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program recently completed field experiments with adlai grass using conservation agriculture practices at its research site in Claveria, the Philippines. Three adlai varieties were tested in research plots at the Claveria site: Kiboa, Ginampay, and Tapol. Kiboa produced the highest grain yield of 3.5 tons per hectare and a total dry matter yield of 8.8 tons per hectare, followed by the Ginampay variety with a grain yield of 3.0 tons per hectare and a total dry matter yield of 7.4 tons per hectare. The Tapol variety was the poorest performer.

“This endemic species is good as food for humans and feed for livestock, as well as mulch in order to suppress weeds, reduce surface water evaporation as well as improving soil organic matter (soil C),” said the Claveria Research Site Coordinator, Agustin Mercado Jr.

Though adlai grass is not as popular as maize, wheat or soybean crops in the developed world, it is widely used for food, folk medicine and even jewelry throughout Southeast and South Asia.

Crops such as adlai grass are the linchpins of agricultural strategies that seek to provide insight into ways to feed an increasingly populated and warming planet. Mitigating spikes in food prices due to extreme weather events such as this summer’s relentless drought can be achieved by studying crops that remain resilient in times of drought, and in the case of adlai grass, conversely serve as a biopump to absorb the excess water of flooding and torrential rains such as the ones experienced in the tropical, upward sloping lands in the Philippines.

The Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Collaborative Research Support Program is a United States Agency for International Development-funded project that conducts applied research to support the implementation of sustainable agriculture and natural resource management practices in developing countries. The program is managed by the Virginia Tech Office of International Research, Education, and Development, which currently oversees a portfolio of approximately $98 million in international research and development projects.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

Written by Amy Loeffler.

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