Monday, May 14, 2018

How Seeds from War-Torn Syria Could Help Save American Wheat

As temperatures rise, pests and diseases are moving north into the U.S. heartland, killing crops and diminishing yields.  To combat this, researchers are turning to a wild grass variety whose seeds were smuggled out of Syria as the bombs fell. 

A wheat field in Kansas. (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to enlarge.
When a team of researchers set loose a buzzing horde of Hessian flies on 20,000 seedlings in a Kansas greenhouse, they made a discovery that continues to ripple from Midwestern wheat fields to the rolling hills that surround the battered Syrian city of Aleppo.  The seeds once stored in a seed bank outside of that now largely destroyed city could end up saving United States wheat from the disruptions triggered by climate change — and look likely to, soon enough, make their way into the foods that Americans eat.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, from 2000 to 2015, average temperatures in the Midwest rose from 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit above what had been the 20th-century average.  Periods of time between rainfalls are lengthening, according to a 2016 assessment by the EPA.  In other words, conditions in some areas of the Midwest are starting to resemble conditions in the Mideast.

Rising temperatures are already leading to drops in Midwestern crop yields that could, under current medium and high emissions scenarios, lead to further drops of as much as 4 percent per year.  In the heart of U.S. cereal and grain country, new pests and diseases are following the hot and dry conditions northward — and frequently overwhelming the ability of agricultural chemicals to battle them off.  In response, scientists are seeking sources of natural resistance — and finding them in Syria, in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of domesticated agriculture.

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