I expect most of you have limited direct experience with many of our other plant record winners this week. But you almost certainly have personal experience with my choice already today: corn
If you read AoBBlog over breakfast, you may be looking at your corn flakes, maize-oil margarine, perhaps corn-starch whitener, corn syrup sweetener, and if your are lucky some corn bread, not to say milk, the rashers of bacon and eggs all from animals fed on corn meal! In England, you may well have some custard from corn starch during the day (one of several made-in-the-USA products that you need to take back as a much-appreciated present on visits to that country) and you will eat popcorn and nacho chips with your bourbon or vodka distilled from corn later in the evening! In many countries, even the fuel in your car may have a few percent of corn-derived ethanol, and corn oil and starch are in many cosmetics, papers and pills. So Zea mays, maize or simply corn is my selection for the prize-winning plant of the year.
2016 marked the announcement of the highest ever yield of the crop in the worldwide statistics from 2014 from FAOStat: a world-wide average of 5.664 tonnes per ha, or in old measures 2.5 tons per acre or 90 bushels per acre. It was also the second year ever, after 2013, when total production exceeded a billion tonnes. Look again at the graphs, and you may rightly ask ‘So what is special?’ Corn has had its highest yield and production pretty much every year for the last 53 years, over the whole period nearly tripling its yield.
My argument here is that this achievement has not come from complacency or doing things like we have always done. Notably, the yield was the highest ever throughout the world: of the major regions on my graph, only South America is showing a tiny decline from the previous year. Thus the technology and genetics that are making these yields possible are being spread around all the world, from the poorest to the richest countries. The picture essay below is showing some of the many technological and genetic contributions to this ever-increasing yield: from agronomy including tillage, precision planting, fertilization, irrigation and crop protection chemicals, then genetics including use of F1 hybrids, improved harvest index, modified plant architecture, and improved yield per plant, and then since 2000 the widespread introduction of genetic modification with the Bt trait to stop insects, particularly the stem borer, and herbicide tolerance. These traits are not designed, though, to give a major uplift in yield but to increase the environmental sustainability of the crop and reduce farmers’ work by making soil tillage and other field operations unnecessary, stopping erosion, and avoiding the need for heavy and late sprays of insecticides after the leaf canopy is complete.