Climate change may soon diminish crop yields

Maize farmer in Mreru
CC BY-SA 2.0 Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Rising temperatures are posing a threat to global food security.

Selective breeding of crops like maize has been common practice in agriculture for thousands of years. By breeding new varieties of plants, farmers can increase crop yields, prevent the spread of disease, and adapt to droughts or other environmental conditions. Unfortunately, a new study from the University of Leeds reveals that climate change may prove to be the biggest challenge yet for crop breeders.

According to the study, rising temperatures and an increased number of droughts brought on by climate change are significantly reducing the crop durations of maize in Africa. Crop durations indicate the length of time between the planting and harvesting of a crop, and the shorter they are, the less time crops have to mature.

In the past, farmers have bred new maize varieties that grow in shorter periods of time to combat shifting crop durations and to preserve yields. However, modern breeding techniques simply aren’t fast enough to compete with rapidly changing climate conditions. The process for producing a new crop variety can take up to 30 years. Yet, if the current carbon emissions trajectory doesn’t change, crop durations will drastically shorten as early as 2018 in some regions of Africa, the study finds, and no later than 2031 in most parts of the continent, although a few areas may not be dramatically affected until 2038.

This would be disastrous for the millions of Africans who rely on maize for food. Without the ability to quickly adapt their crops to these new conditions, farmers will be forced to harvest maize with diminished biomasses, resulting in insufficient crop yields.

The scientists behind the study insist that further research into newer, speedier breeding technologies is a necessary investment to ensure food security. They also propose breeding new crop varieties in greenhouses with high temperatures, mimicking the projected future temperatures of the maize-growing regions of Africa. Andrew Jarvis, one of the directors of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), called new breeding technologies “one of the best investments we can make for climate adaption,” explaining that “climate funds could be used to help the world’s farmers stay several steps ahead of climate change, with major benefits for global food security.”

Climate change won’t only affect crops in Africa. The authors of the study believe that tropical environments throughout the world will face similar dilemmas, and farmers everywhere should be prepared.

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