Growing enough food as climate conditions shift becomes one of the great challenges faced by civilization as we pass seven billion and proceed towards nine billion people.
Just two days after a report saying the genetic potential of wheat to improve yields is topping out...
Have Wheat Yields Peaked? (via @ScienceNOW)
...we get a new report that scientists have decoded the wheat genome in the most difficult DNA sequencing project so far, as the wheat genome is five times more complex than that of humans. Implications are potentially significant for food security as this could unlock future yield improvements and the ability to develop new types of wheat better able to cope with adverse growing conditions such as drought and salinity:
August 27: Financial Times: Clive Cookson: "The raw DNA data, released on Friday night on the internet, will immediately help crop breeders develop improved wheat varieties, though years more research will be needed to understand the complexities of the genome and make full use of the information...."
..."We have delivered most of the sequences necessary for plant breeders to identify genetic differences in wheat," said Keith Edwards of the University of Bristol. "The data will dramatically increase the efficiency of breeding new crop varieties..."
"...the lack of genetic information has held back the breeding of better wheat varieties. Breeders will now be able to catch up, not necessarily by developing genetically modified wheat but by improving the yield of conventional varieties.
"...By understanding the genetic differences between varieties with different traits we can start to develop new types of wheat better able to cope with drought, salinity or able to deliver higher yields..."
Just this summer reports of crop-killing Russian heat waves and drought and devastating Pakistani floods highlight the challenges we face in keeping people fed and watered. The Russian droughts have been so severe that even next year's wheat crop is threatened because there is too little moisture in the soil to support sprouting of wheat planted this fall....
Serial Cereal Risk: Drought to hit next year's Russian grain crop (via @FT)
...And, the severe flooding in the Indus River basin not only drives people off the land they need to grow crops, floods can scrape away the topsoil without which nothing grows:
Long-Term Impact: Pakistan flood scours 100,000 acres of Swat farm land (via @nytimes @reliefweb @alertnet)
These severe weather events impair more than the land's ability to grow crops. The New York Times reports August 27 on the long term damage floods are causing to Pakistan's infrastructure -- roads, bridges, water supply systems -- and ability for the nation to be self-reliant:
Pakistan floods set back years of gains on infrastructure (via @nytimes)
As temperatures continue their upward trek, we must plan for disruptive extreme weather like drought, heat waves, storms, and floods. Confronting and adapting to this volatile future will require all the tools we can muster. One of the key tools will come from the labs of plant geneticists trying to understand and improve the productivity of wheat and the other grain crops we eat.
also see: Researchers: Perennial Cereal Grains Can Increase Food and Ecosystem Security (via @sciencemagazine)
also see: Climate Change and Food Security: Adapting Agriculture to a Warmer World by David Lobell and Marshall Burke
also see: Feeding the Future: (free access) Special issue of "Science" on Food Security (via @sciencemagazine)
Wheat, Germany, July 2010. Photo from Creative Commons by TJ Morton/flickr
Michael Price: "...the genetic improvements that have increased wheat yields year after year may have hit a wall, according to new research. That could present new challenges to farmers and policymakers trying to find ways to feed a growing world population that shows no signs of plateauing...."