Many of us have heard that cattle release methane (often in the form of belching). But did you know, the grasslands they live on are highly successful at capturing greenhouse gasses and acting as a carbon sink?

Canadian grasslands have actually been identified as a critical nature-based climate solution because of their capacity to sequester carbon in the soil. But what has biodiversity got to do with it?

AAFC researchers including Drs. Sean Asselin and Hongjie Zhang of the Swift Current Research and Development Centre are investigating grasslands to understand how genetic diversity holds one key to environmental sustainability and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

Preserving grasslands and ensuring sustainability

Grassland systems, both natural and seeded, cover more than 16 million hectares of land in Canada and provide a number of ecological benefits to the natural world. These can range from feed for cattle and habitat for pollinators and birds to functions like storing atmospheric carbon dioxide in soil as organic carbon, which offsets greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers already know that when it comes to ecological services, native grasslands tend to support greater biodiversity than those seeded with a limited number of imported species. While introduced perennial species can recreate some ecosystem functions of the native prairie, they are not always suitable for different production conditions. This is partly because native plants are better adapted to the local environment, which can help maintain their productivity in stressful, low-rainfall years, and enhancing soil carbon storage.

Diversity of the plant community can also enhance other ecosystem services, including seasonal forage productivity, biodiversity conservation, pollination, and pest control, which can further mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and lower costs by reducing fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Furthermore, deep-rooted perennial species also produce benefits for soil micro-organisms, and their interaction is another route to increase soil biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

Unfortunately, approximately 75% of Canada’s grasslands have been lost over time. More acres of grasslands are lost every year to alternative land uses like cropping systems, housing or industrial purposes. Many grasslands that do exist are not necessarily managed to optimize their carbon storage or greenhouse gas mitigation potential.

This is why AAFC researchers from the Swift Current Development Centre are partnering with colleagues at the Universities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba on a new collaborative Genome Prairie project. This project brings together experts in plant genomics, soil science, insect studies, machine learning, and economic analysis. Their collaboration ensures that data and insights flow seamlessly across various fields.

The goal is to apply emerging genomic tools to evaluate the ecological and economic value of biodiversity in grasslands. The scope extends to understanding how genetic diversity can enhance resilience and soil carbon sequestration, particularly in the face of changing climates and the urgent need for greenhouse gas mitigation.

Ultimately, the sum of these research efforts will facilitate the adoption of greenhouse gas friendly grassland management practices, helping Canada sustainably meet its climate change goals.

What has genomics got to do with it?

Genomics is the study of an organism’s entire set of genetic material, including interactions of those genes with each other and with the environment. By studying these complex interactions, this research team hopes to provide Canadian producers with a toolkit—a genomic compass guiding them towards sustainable grassland management practices.

“In the grand narrative of environmental sustainability, the role of genomics in grasslands is not just about decoding DNA; it’s about deciphering the language of resilience, adaptability and a greener future for Canada.”

– Dr. Sean Asselin, Research Scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Through co-development with producer groups, non-governmental organizations and First Nations, the team will apply genomic tools to quantify how microbial and insect biodiversity relate to native plant genetic and species diversity and greater soil sequestration. They’ll also study how these relationships influence ecological services in native grassland systems, particularly those reducing greenhouse gasses and increasing soil carbon sequestration. This data will be used to develop diversity targets for mitigating greenhouse gasses and restored native grasslands and in pasture systems.

Data will be used to determine whether the indicators developed in this project can be detected in newly established grasslands, allowing scientists to develop new tools for rapidly forecasting the ecological services potential of rangelands and diversely seeded pastures.

Researchers understand that native species seed cost and availability can be a barrier to adoption, so the project will also be engaging in producer and public surveys to better understand the perceived benefits and barriers to using native species, and the value associated with the ecosystem services they produce. This data will be used to improve economic models of ecological services to encourage native species adoption.

While the project is still in the early stages, researchers think this toolkit might take the form of an end-user app or website that will empower land managers (both of native rangelands and seeded pasture), to make informed decisions about their land by estimating the value of biodiversity including different grassland plant groups in their operations, as well as the value of soil carbon sequestration. It is a way of considering not only economic benefits but also environmental sustainability.

Key discoveries/benefits

  • Grasslands are vital for environmental sustainability and ecological health, as they are a mitigator for carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Globally, grasslands store 33% of terrestrial carbon and 38% more carbon than annual crops.
  • The goal of this project is to preserve native grasslands to increase soil carbon sequestration and mitigate carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Dr. Asselin and his colleagues are:
    • finding ways to avoid conversion of native grasslands and pastures to annual crops
    • finding a better way to study early indicators that predict changes in soil carbon stocks and to identify key soil microbial indicators linked to higher soil carbon stocks
    • identifying barriers to adopting native species in forage production systems
    • applying genomics to screen germplasm for stress tolerance traits
    • developing resilient forage mixtures using genomic tools

Thank you to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) for submitting the article and photos.

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