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Food researchers advocate diversifying crops to face climate change

Tuesday 04 October 2011

Responding to appeals for new tools to deal with the effects of climate change on food production, leading agriculturalists have released a series of studies focused on "climate proofing" crops critical to food security in the developing world.

The scientists behind the studies warn that the global agriculture industry relies on too few staple crops and has a narrowing oportunity to diversify crops, which are at an ever increasing threat from drought, flood and pests brought by climate change. The food researchers said the dozen or so staple crops on which the vast majority of the world’s population relies are at risk as they are currently cultivated in a tiny number of strains.

The researchers, from CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), warned these strains may be affected by the erratic weather climate change will bring, they suggested many of the critical traits farmers will need to deal with hotter, dryer, and in some cases, wetter conditions likely reside in seeds currently safeguarded by international crop genebanks and recommend adopting the rich veins of resilient traits contained in the wild relatives of key crops. The CCAFS studies show the extent to which wheat, corn bananas cassava and potatoes are at risk.

Using the example of the potato, which supports millions of people around the world, the researchers showed how vulnerable the crop is to heat stress, which reduces growth and starch formation. They warned rising temperatures in southern Africa and tropical highlands worldwide could be particularly hazardous. They also said the potato tuber moth, which could spread northward as a result of climate change posed a significant threat.

Commenting on the conclusions drawn from its studies, CCAFS director Bruce Campbell said, "These results offer plant breeders a strong foundation for establishing research priorities for the next two decades, which is about the time they'll need to develop new generations of crop varieties suited to shifting agriculture environments. Farmers have always adapted, but the pace of change under climate change is going to be much greater than in the past. There's going to be a real need to move fast."

CCAFS seek $7bn a year to conduct research

The researchers believe around $7 billion per year in extra funding will be needed for irrigation investments, agricultural research and rural infrastructure, according to the estimates. Diversification of crops and seed banks is also crucial to an effective response to climate change, according to CCAFS.

The group remained vague about the question of genetic engineering; "It is a question that is left to society to answer," CCAFS head Campbell said elusively. He also opined that the process of climate change is also well underway, as evidenced by shifts in rainfall patterns and irregular growing seasons observed in many global regions this year in particular.

Campbell elaborated, "There are two sorts of changes that are going to happen. One is a gradual temperature increase, the other is the extremes, extremes of heat and floods, and I think they are already here. In the meteorological records, there are so many extremes that are being beaten, although it's very difficult to pin them to climate change."

Andy Jarvis, an agricultural geographer at CIAT who also oversees CCAFS research on climate change adaptation, commented on the impact of the studies’ release; the CCAFS research has been compiled in a book, Crop Adaptation to Climate Change, with contributions from the world’s leading climatologists and agriculturalists. Jarvis said, "Until now, all this information has been widely dispersed, making it hard for scientists, policy-makers, and civil society actors to get a proper grasp of the complex interactions between agriculture and climate change. By making key information freely and easily available for the first time, the AMKN should greatly enhance our understanding of the threat that climate change poses to food security and ultimately our ability to curb the threat."


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