Because of dramatic climate changes, crop yields are expected to fall within the next decade. This is bound to happen unless immediate action takes place that is able to speed up the introduction of new and improved varieties. Experts continue to send out warnings and unfortunately, nothing has been changing in recent years. Many researchers have looked into the problem but guessing what the climate will be like years from now is difficult, and this is something that has continually held developments back from the drawing board.
Research led by the University of Leeds was published in Nature Climate Change journal that focused on maize in Africa and the underlying processes that affect crops all across the tropics. The lead author of the study, Professor Andy Challinor from the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds says that Africa has gradually rising temperatures and is experiencing more droughts and heat waves that are directly caused by climate change. There is no doubt about it: these changes are going to have an impact on maize and these impacts will increase year after year. He says the team looked in particular at the effect of temperature on crop durations. Crop durations pertain to the length of time between when crops are planted and when they are harvested. Higher temperatures lead to shorter durations, which means less time to accumulate biomass and yield.
It can take anywhere from 10 to 30 years to breed a new crop variety and have it adopted by farmers. The rate at which temperatures are increasing across the tropics means that by the time a new crop is brought forward and placed into the field, it is going to be grown in far warmer temperatures than it was developed in. This could lead to unexpected problems.
The team looked at a range of data related to farming relating to regulatory policy, markets and technologies and were able to develop an average that included both best and worst case scenarios for current crop breeding systems.
Researchers discovered that crop durations will become significantly much shorter by as early as the year 2018 in some locations. By 2031, drastic changes will have occurred within the majority of maize-growing regions throughout Africa. The study shows that if farming, policy, markets and technology all work together to make new varieties within the next 10 years, crops would be able to stay matched to temperatures between this year and 2050. This would allow researchers some additional time to brainstorm and come up with new ways to keep up with the ever-changing climates.
The research team was made up of experts in agriculture, climate and social science studied a variety of options to ensure that crops could be developed and delivered to the field at a quick rate. These range from improved biochemical screening techniques to more socially-centered measures, like improving government policies on breeding trials and the amount of access farmers have to the markets.
Dr. Andy Jarvis from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (or CIAT) says investment in agriculture research to develop and disseminate new seed technologies is one of the best investments we can make for climate adaptation. Climate funds could be used to help the farmers of the world stay several steps ahead of climate change, with major benefits for global food security.
Those involved in the study have proposed an alternative plan. They would like to use global climate models in order to determine future temperatures and then heat greenhouses to those specific temperatures as a way to help develop new crop varieties. Professor Challinor says the challenge is knowing what future emissions will be and making certain that climate models are able to produce accurate enough information on future temperatures based on those emissions. At the Priestley Centre, researchers continue to work on these challenges by improving climate models and targeting their use directly at solving such problems.