Crop Breeding Cannot Keep Up With Climate Change


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

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.


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.


The team has proposed that, if business continues as usual, global climate models should be first used to determine future regional temperatures, and then new crop varieties need to be bred in order to match these by the time they’re planted and growing. “People are beginning to do this, but this paper provides the hard evidence of the necessity of it,” Challinor told BBC News.

The use of genetic modification will speed up the process of finding heat-resistant crops, but even then a long period of testing them will still be required – there’s no magic bullet for this situation.

Man-made climate change is scorching the Earth, but there are three parts of it that are particularly doomed if things continue the way they are. The Arctic, firstly, is warming at twice the speed as the rest of the planet, thanks to an interaction between ocean currents and a process known as Arctic Amplification.


Africa is in dire trouble thanks to man-made climate change. John Wollwerth/Shutterstock


Secondly, the Middle East is due to become uninhabitable by the end of the century thanks to its heat-absorbing deserts. Lastly, and perhaps most severely, the African continent is largely set to experience commonplace heat waves within the next few decades, meaning that agricultural collapse, drought, and subsequent war and conflict are more likely.

The world is in trouble, but as many studies have predicted, Africa may suffer the worst of all. Considering that the top three greenhouse gas emitting blocs on the planet are China, the United States, and the European Union, this is incredibly unfair.


  • tag
  • climate change,

  • Africa,

  • genetic modification,

  • maize,

  • crops,

  • rising temperatures,

  • yield