Next Frontier: Controlling Crop Stresses You Can't Control

Small company uses concept on fruit, ready to use it on corn, beans.

Published on: May 24, 2010

The logic Chuck Kupatt lays out is simple. The big opportunity to increase crop yields from where they are today to where scientists predict they could be in theory is in helping plants control the unpredictable. Determine how to help them better survive the stresses of the environment, such as temperatures, whether too high or too low, and moisture, either too much or too little.

There are already good solutions and more coming all the time for controlling biotic stresses, including insects, diseases and weds. What's tougher is helping the crop machinery inside the carbohydrate factory of each plant perform efficiently when it's too hot, when the soil is acidic, or when there's a drought.

Kupatt is chief technology officer for a company called Crop Microclimate Management, Inc., known as CCM, Inc. So far, the company has targeted high-value crops, mostly outside the U.S., in places such as Australia. They're beginning to work in high-value crops in the key growing regions for specialty crops in the U.S., such as in California. At the same time, they're experimenting with a different product that could do some of the same things for corn and soybeans. That type of product is likely at least a couple years away, but it's a concept hat peaks one's interest.

Kupatt has studied photosynthesis extensively. Much of what they try to do is promote the most photosynthesis possible inside plants. "When it gets above 85 degrees F, carbohydrate production drops off," he explains. "At some level photosynthesis stops and no carbohydrate is produced. If you're dealing with fruit crops, including tomatoes, the result may be smaller fruit, less fruit and less productivity on tree crops the next season. Sunburn is also an issue in situations where plants are getting more light intensity than they can withstand."

Evidence shows that photosynthesis decreases as temperature in the plant increases. Less carbon dioxide is captured, and light that is still collected by plant cells produces what are known as free radicals. They can damage leaf tissue. Plants use some of the carbohydrate they produce to repair this damage at night.

CMM markets Screen and Screen Duo for high-value crops. They contain kaolin. What these products do is help reflect some radiation, reducing stress, and keeping plants cooler. Part of what Screen Duo does is activate enzymes that helps the plant rectify problems caused by extreme heat.

Researchers overseas have documented what these products can do in tomatoes, grapes and even oranges. Part of the problem with trying to work inside the U.S. is that university research here usually requires funding, Kupatt says. As a small company that needs income to grow, it's difficult to support lots of expensive research.

That doesn't mean the concept doesn't work. The new technology CMM is pursuing now for crops like corn doesn't affect photosynthesis directly. It uses a different concept, Kupatt says, to provide the same effect of keeping plants efficient even at high temperatures. Even Kupatt isn't sure exactly how G3 works.

"It's exciting because it's a product that could be applied at low -use rates, and bring protection from the environmental factors we can't control now to row crops," he says. "It's something we certainly intend to pursue for the future."