Crop Breeding Cannot Keep Up With Climate Change

Maize, particularly in Africa, is in big trouble. zhu difeng/Shutterstock

Crop yields around the globe could plummet within the next decade unless new heat- and drought-resistant crop varieties are used instead. With a growing global population and increased demand, such a drop in crop production will almost certainly punish the poorest people most severely.

Depressingly and predictably, Africa is suffering the worst from humanity’s profligate greenhouse gas emissions. It can take 10 to 30 years there to breed a new type of maize that is adaptable to the current environmental conditions – but by the time these new crops are used en masse, the climate will have warmed too much for them to cope.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, the team of researchers noted that the time between planting a crop and harvesting it – the so-called “crop duration” – will see drops from as soon as 2018 in multiple regions across the world. “Higher temperatures mean shorter durations and hence less time to accumulate biomass and yield,” Andy Challinor, the study’s lead author and a professor of climate impacts at the University of Leeds, said in a statement.

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The world is warming too quickly for any plants to sufficiently adapt. Meryll/Shutterstock

By assessing a range of conditions, including data on farming, markets, agricultural technologies, global and regional temperature trends, and precipitation rates, the team produced both best- and worst-case scenarios for various parts of the world. Their results are pretty grim, suggesting that most scenarios led to a near future wherein crop demand massively outweighs the supply.

Only in the most optimistic estimate – wherein a huge international collaborative effort leads to the production of heat-resistant crops in the next 10 years – are crops matched to rising temperatures until 2050.

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