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Scientists unite in global hunt for climate change-resistant crops

By David Hewitt - 13 Dec 2010 11:24:3 GMT
Scientists unite in global hunt for climate change-resistant crops

In the Biblical story of Noah's Ark, the eponymous hero is tasked with taking two of each kind of animal on Earth on board his vessel so as to save them from a catastrophic flood. Now, scientists across the world are being asked to search for the wild relatives of a number of staple crops so as to protect global food supplies against the mounting threat of climate change.

Launched with the backing of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, and the financial support of the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust will see scientists work together to search for the wild versions of 23 food species. While the world may not be threatened with a flood of biblical proportions, the British botanical experts are worried that, since the crops humans all around the world currently rely upon were initially developed from wild species that were suited to climates from centuries past, rising temperatures could prove troublesome, potentially leading to widespread crop failures in the years ahead.

With this in mind, the newly-launched project will see a multinational team search for the wild relatives of staples such as barley, beans, chickpeas and lentils, add them to the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew, where resident experts intend to spend the next ten years adapting them to be grown on a commercial level in what is likely to be a much-less hospitable climate.

"We need to glean from them the traits that will enable modern crops to adapt to new, harsher and more demanding situations," explained GCDT executive director Cary Fowler. "And we need to do it while those plants can still be found."

Indeed, though they may have given themselves a decade to complete their task, that's not to say speed is not of the essence. In fact, there is a general feeling that this project is a 'make or break' deal, with the consequences of failing to identify crop variants capable of thriving in a world of rising temperatures likely to have dire consequences for global food security. What's more, as well as the threat posed by shifting temperatures and more-frequent incidences of freak weather, food crops will also continue to be at risk from diseases and a growing shortages of suitable agricultural land.

Add to this the fact that the global population is expected to hit nine billion by 2050, and it's clear that guaranteeing good harvests will be one of the biggest challenges facing world leaders in the next few decades. Not only will governments be required to ensure that their own citizens are fed, but in this increasingly-globalised world, they need to look beyond their own borders and make sure the wprld's less-developed nations benefit from improved agricultural efficiency and sustainability.

Fortunately, this has already been picked up by those in power, with Australia's Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig arguing this week that producers and politicians need to act as "global citizens" to address the challenge of food security head-on over the immediate future. For, though the wayters may have subsided for Noah and the varied passengers on his ark, this time round there may be no second chance.