Most commercial crops are photosynthesizing at only a fraction of their inherent capacity. The limiting factors that keep them from reaching their potential are most commonly inadequate water, carbon dioxide, not enough manganese, not enough chlorophyll, and too high leaf temperature.
Water is obvious. The solutions to infiltrating and retaining large volumes of water in our soil profiles to produce drought proofed soils are known and will be described more in the future.
Carbon dioxide as a limiting factor is often not considered as it should be. The most important reason to have high organic matter content soil is so we can lose the organic matter as CO2 while we have a green plant to capture it. In crops that are efficient photosynthesizers such as a perennial polyculture of well managed grazed forages, corn, sugarcane, and many others, carbon dioxide levels can be depleted in the local air to less than 100 ppm by mid-morning on a warm day. For the rest of that day, photosynthesis is limited by CO2 supply.
Manganese is needed for water hydrolysis. When water is absorbed from the soil and moves up into the leaf, the first step before water can participate in photosynthesis is that the H2O molecule is split to H and OH ions, hydrogen and hydroxyl. This water splitting process is called water hydrolysis and is completely dependent on manganese. Even when you have perfect environmental growing conditions, perfect water, temperature, sunlight, and carbon dioxide, if the plant does not have abundant manganese, photosynthesis will be slowed.
Chlorophyll levels can often be increased by making sure that plants have adequate levels of magnesium, iron, and nitrogen. Nitrogen is seldom low because it is one of the nutrients much used to cover up other imbalances, and is frequently over-applied. Magnesium is easy to correct with a foliar application, and also frequently low. Iron is almost universally low in plants, contrary to most soil and plant tissue analysis reports, because the (oxidized) form of iron reported on these assays is not physiologically active in plants. Any of these three nutrients can be used to quickly give plants a dark green color by increasing chlorophyll. Since nitrogen is generally abundant, magnesium and iron usually produce the biggest economic crop response. Leaf sap analysis can identify precisely what is needed.
When leaf temperatures are too high, photorespiration becomes dominant instead of photosynthesis, and plant energy levels begin dropping, ammonium is produced in leaf tissue as a result of protein catabolism, and plant immunity is quickly reduced. There is not a direct correlation between leaf temperature and air temperature. Healthier plants remain cooler for much longer at higher leaf temperatures, through a variety of mechanisms.
Look for more detail on each of these in future posts.