Since the mid-20th century, crop breeding has driven unprecedented yield gains. Breeders generally select for broadly- and reliably-performing varieties that display little genotype-byenvironment interaction (GxE). In contrast, ecological theory predicts that across environments that vary spatially or temporally, the most productive population will be a mixture of narrowly adapted specialists. We quantified patterns of broad and narrow adaptation in modern, commercial maize (Zea mays L.) hybrids planted across 216 site-years, from 1999-2018, for the University of Illinois yield trials. We found that location was the dominant source of yield variation (44.5%), and yearly weather was the smallest (1.7%), which suggested a benefit for reliable performance in narrow biophysical environments. Varieties displayed a large "home field advantage" when growing in the location of best performance relative to other varieties. Home field advantage accounted for 19% of GxE and provided a yield increase of 1.01 ± 0.04 Mg · ha-1 (7.6% relative to mean yield), yet was both smaller than predicted by a null model and unchanged across time. This counterfactual suggests that commercial breeding programs have missed an opportunity to further increase yields by leveraging local adaptation. Public breeding programs may pursue this opportunity by releasing specialist varieties that perform reliably in narrow environments. As seed sources are increasingly privatized and consolidated, this alternate strategy may compliment private breeding to support global food security.
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© 2019 Ewing et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.