Heat-tolerant wheat: the future of food development

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Climate change Agriculture

A major global research effort has generated climate-resilient
innovations such as crops bred to withstand heat, salt, submergence
or waterlogging.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which is working to reduce developing countries vulnerability to climate change caused by global warming, is focusing on boosting agricultures role in reducing climate-altering greenhouse gases.

"The impacts of climate change on agriculture will add significantly to the development challenges of reducing poverty and ensuring sufficient food production for a growing population,"​ said Dr. Robert S. Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a CGIAR-supported research centre.

"The livelihoods of billions of people in developing countries, particularly those in the tropics, will be severely challenged as crop yields decline due to shorter growing seasons."

As a result, researchers are already developing more reliable varieties of food crops capable of withstanding increased temperatures, drought, and flooding.

Heat-resistant cereals currently under development are designed to provide greater yield reliability, especially in the tropics and subtropics, where many crops are grown at or near their thermal optimum, and where a one degree Celsius increase in temperatures during the growing season can result in a decline in yields of up to 10 per cent.

In addition, with increased rainfall and flooding forecast in many parts of Asia, new breeds of rice benefiting from a trait that allows the plant to survive prolonged periods of submergence are already helping farmers on millions of hectares in India and Bangladesh.

Researchers are also looking to boost rice yields from a shrinking land base by reconfiguring the plants photosynthetic engine so that it more efficiently converts solar power and atmospheric carbon into grain.

And for drought-prone regions like Southern Africa, researchers using an innovative molecular approach to breeding have made progress in developing maize that withstands prolonged dry periods and infertile soils.

This and other drought-related work, including research that allows crops to be "programmed" so they mature at the time of year when conditions are most likely to be favourable for grain development, regardless of when they are planted, is beginning to have an impact in farmers fields, claims CGIAR.

The researchers are focusing on solutions for the developing world because they believe that it is the south that will suffer most from climate change. For example, a new study forecasts a 51 per cent decrease by 2050 in the amount of Indias most favourable wheat-growing land.

According to a study from one of the research centres, sustained periods of hotter, drier weather will dramatically shrink Indias breadbasket and diminish yields, placing at least 200 million people at greater risk of hunger.

As a result of rising temperatures, the climatic conditions best suited to wheat growing will shift away from the tropics where most of the worlds poorest countries are situated toward the poles and to higher elevations. According to the study, North American wheat growers will be able to farm new lands as far as 65 degrees north, 10 degrees beyond their current planting limit.

"Developing countries, which are already home to most of the worlds poor and malnourished people and have contributed relatively little to the causes of global warming, are going to bear the brunt of climate change and suffer most from its negative consequences,"​ said Dr. Verchot of the World Agroforestry Centre.

The CGIAR is a strategic agricultural research alliance that supports 15 research centres worldwide.

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