Thursday, June 23, 2016

Race Is On to Feed Warming World

Scientists warn that plant breeders will need to accelerate development schedules if they are to ensure the ever-growing population can be fed as global temperatures rise.

A farmer in Malawi checks her maize crop that is struggling as a result of the worst drought in three decades. [Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT)] Click to Enlarge.
It can take up to 30 years to improve a crop variety, test it and persuade farmers to adopt it.  That means the speed of climate change in Africa could make a new variety of maize useless even before the first harvest, according to new research.

But two separate studies that address the challenge of food security in a rapidly warming world suggest that the answers may lie not just in future weather but in today’s soils.

One says that better soil data can be used to predict surer levels of yield.  The other recommends a technique perfected at least 700 years ago in West Africa that converts nutrient-poor tropical soil to fertile and nourishing black earth.

Even with good soil, farmers need crop varieties adapted to local rainfall and temperatures.

Immediate action
Andy Challinor, professor of climate impacts at the University of Leeds in the UK, has already warned that climate change could have a dramatic impact on African farmland.

Now he and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that there must be immediate action to speed up the development of new and improved varieties of maize and other crops.

“In Africa, gradually rising temperatures and more droughts and heatwaves caused by climate change will have an impact on maize,” he warns.

“We looked in particular at the effect of temperature on crop durations, which is the length of time between planting and harvesting.  Higher temperatures mean shorter durations, and hence less time to accumulate biomass and yield.”

This good/bad combination of swifter growth but lower nutritional substance is on the way.  In some cases, the researchers found that crop duration could become significantly shorter as early as 2018, and by 2031 in most of the maize-growing regions of Africa.

It took a very optimistic assessment – one in which farming, policy, markets and technology all worked together to deliver new varieties in a decade – to deliver a prediction of crops that could keep pace with rising temperatures between now and 2050.

Read more at Race Is On to Feed Warming World

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