Around the world, scientists, corporations and philanthropists are racing global warming, hurrying to breed food plants that can resist the harsh effects of climate change. As temperatures rise and weather patterns change, crops that have long been adapted for one climate will suddenly be plunged into another — rice paddies in Bangladesh may be inundated with water for months while corn in Mexico withers in hot droughts. As we saw vividly this summer when extreme drought and heat in Russia destroyed a significant portion of its wheat crop, changes in climate — even in one area — can affect food supplies all over the globe. Some scientists predict global warming’s most serious effect will be a world-wide food crisis, and last year scientists predicted that in just forty years an additional 25 million children will go hungry because of climate change.
That’s the crisis food scientists are racing to avert as they work to develop new varieties of plants that can handle the new conditions. Examples abound: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation have invested heavily in The Drought Tolerant Maize For Africa Initiative, which supports scientists breeding corn that can survive in dry, infertile soil. A recent study suggested this initiative could boost maize harvests in Africa by 34%, even in drought conditions. Meanwhile in Asia, the International Rice Research Institute has developed several varieties “scuba rice” that can survive underwater for up to two weeks in times of flooding.
Good News From Mexico!
Now there’s more good news! On the hills outside Mexico City, scientists have made a thrilling discovery — ancient varieties of wheat seeds grow into plants that can resist some of the most serious effects of climate change. These varieties of wheat have longer roots than modern wheat varieties, and can store more nutrients in their stalks. These valuable traits make them more drought- and heat-resistant. At the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center, scientists are now crossing the ancient varities with modern varieties in an attempt to grow wheat that can withstand some of the effects of climate change.
This discovery could benefit farmers throughout Mexico and in other areas of the world — the Russian wheat growers may not have suffered so much this year if even a portion of their wheat crop could have survived on less water or at higher temperatures. Over 600 million tons of wheat are grown throughout the world every year, so the resilience of the crop is extremely important.
Save Our Seeds
The rediscovered seeds bring with them some lessons, too. Jaelithe Judy has been writing about the possible closing of a Russian seed bank. It is very important that seeds be preserved, not out of sentimentality, but out of practicality. To feed the world, we need access to as diverse a variety of plant life as possible. Varieties of plants that haven’t been grown in years could have the very trait we need to stave off a famine as the climate changes.
The wheat also points to the importance of biodiversity in agriculture. While it may seem nonsensical not to find the variety of wheat that produces the most bushels per acre and then growing that alone, in a monoculture of that kind, the vagaries of climate or disease can wipe out an entire crop and leave the market reeling. With biodiversity, we have a better chance of mitigating some of climate change’s nastiest effects.
Of course, new (or very old) varieties of seeds aren’t a magic bullet. To combat climate change’s ravages, farmers need to practice sustainable farming methods that preserve water, prevent erosion and nourish soil. Nor will this wheat be a “supercrop” that survives wind, hail and locusts — we’re talking about changes that could be significant but won’t allow the plants to bear up under natural disasters or extreme environmental conditions. Breeding, perfecting and disseminating these seeds will also take time, and growers won’t replace their entire crops overnight.
Still, seeds like these ancient Mexican gems can still provide us with hope that even as we work to stop climate change, we can be adapting to it and mitigating some of its ravages.
Photo of SS7702 Crediton Hamlets: footpath through wheatfield. Copyright Martin Bodman, licensed for reuse through Creative Commons license.