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Can crops be climate-proofed?

Publication date:
T. Padma
Type of publication:

Among the most worrying aspects of climate change is its effects on the world's food supply. This article explores the urgent need to put climate change at the heart of agricultural research programmes to ensure the adaptation of major crops to a changing climate.
The author argues that, while the previous focus of crop scientists was on the improvement of yields, with successive International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports warning that increased flooding and drought will shift crop systems, “climate-proofing” of crops has become crucial. Key findings include:

due to the fact that few climate models predict changes for individual regions, it is difficult to predict how climate change will affect growth yields of specific crops in each region
the window for implementing mitigation and adaptation programmes has shrunk from 30-40 years to 15
rice crops are the most vulnerable to global warming and as such, there is the need for plants that can tolerate higher temperatures and/or flooding.
the IPCC's predictions of increasing droughts spell disaster for half of the developing world's wheat growing areas. Experimental genetic engineering programmes are crucial to tackling this.
climate change is leading to a decrease in diversity amongst wild species which provide useful genetic resources to crop scientists. The exact consequences of this loss of biodiversity for each ecosystem needs to be analysed in detail.

The article concludes by noting that water availability holds the key to addressing this crisis. It argues that scientists need to go beyond coarse global models to develop specific river-basin and farm-scale models of how climate change will affect river water availability and lake levels and thus impact on crop levels. Although a tentative start towards “climate-proofing” crops has been made, it predicts that the road ahead is long.