World lags on “climate-proof” crops

The world is running out of time to develop new seed varieties to confront climate change and head off food shortages, Reuters reported. The news agency quoted scientists concerned that billions of people in Asia and Africa were most at risk from a lack of crops resistant to the effects of climate change.


“It’s a question of urgency,” said Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, as he and other experts marked the first anniversary of a “doomsday” seed vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, in the Arctic Ocean. “Unlike the bank that needs to be bailed out this week,” he said, “this problem is going to be an emergency 20 years from now. But by then it will be too late.”


The seed vault — run by the crop-diversity trust, the Norwegian government and Sweden’s Nordic Genetic Resource Center – now contains 200 million seeds, representing 400,000 plant varieties.


David Lobell, a food-security and environment expert at Stanford University, noted that while work was being done to help develop flood- and drought-resistant crops, exposure to very high temperatures has not been a focus. As the planet warms, he said, countries such as India and Pakistan face disruption to rice and wheat crops, while southern Africa’s maize is likely to be hard hit.


“It’s not going to be enough to create heat-tolerant maize,” Fowler said. “We are going to need new varieties appropriate in Ghana, in South Africa, or Brazil. You need crops adapted all over the place.” Crops can take a decade to breed and test, with no guarantee of success.


“The whole world will be stressed at the same time,” said David Battisti, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington. He has predicted that climate change will disrupt growth of both crops and livestock and cause serious food shortages for half the world’s population.


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