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Does Organic Farming Lead to Genetic Adaptations in Plants?

The University of Bonn, Germany, conducted a study that shows how plants genetically adapt to the conditions over the period. The results have been published in the journal: “Agronomy of Sustainable Development.”

Sarbani Bhattacharjee
Does Organic Farming Lead to Genetic Adaptations in Plants? (This image has been created with MidJourney)
Does Organic Farming Lead to Genetic Adaptations in Plants? (This image has been created with MidJourney)

Organic farming practices are known for their environmental and health benefits. Recent studies conducted by the University of Bonn, have provided fascinating insights into another advantage of organic farming: genetic adaptations in plants. Over a span of more than two decades, studies have shown that plants adapt their genetic material to suit the specific conditions of organic farming.

Long-term Study and Findings

Initiated at the University of Bonn by Prof. Dr. Jens Léon and his team at the Institute of Crop Science and Resource Conservation (INRES), the study commenced in the late 1990s. This experiment aimed to observe the genetic changes in barley plants subjected to different farming methods. High-yield barley was crossed with wild forms to increase genetic variation and then planted on two neighboring fields. One field was managed using conventional farming methods, while the other employed organic practices.

Conventional vs. Organic Farming Practices

Conventional farming methods were characterized by using pesticides, chemical agents to eliminate weeds, and mineral fertilizers to ensure a steady nutrient supply. In contrast, organic farming relied on mechanical methods for weed control, manure from stables for fertilization, and the absence of synthetic pesticides. Every fall, grains were retained to sow the fields for the following spring, with organic grains used on the organic field and conventionally grown barley on the comparative field.

Genetic Analysis Over Time

The genetic development of barley was analyzed annually. Each gene can exist in various forms known as alleles. The frequency of certain alleles in a population can change over generations, influenced by environmental conditions. The study revealed that in the first twelve years, allele frequencies in barley changed similarly in both fields. This was interpreted as an adaptation to local conditions such as climate, soil, and day length, which were identical for both populations.

However, over the subsequent years, the allele frequencies began to diverge significantly. Barley-grown organically developed gene variants that were less sensitive to nutrient deficits and water shortages. These alleles influenced root structure, likely an adaptation to the varying nutrient availability typical in organic farming.

Importance of Specialized Varieties

The results of this long-term study underline the importance of cultivating plant varieties specifically for organic farming. Organic barley was enriched with specific genetic material that differed from conventionally farmed barley. These findings, published in the journal “Agronomy for Sustainable Development,” emphasize the need to consider genetic adaptation when developing crops for organic farming systems.

Such a study showcases compelling evidence that organic farming can lead to genetic adaptations in plants. Over time, these adaptations enhance the plants' ability to thrive under the unique conditions of organic agriculture.

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