No silver bullet to save crops

U. LEEDS (UK) — Large-scale crop failures are likely to become more common under climate change, but could be mitigated by improved farming and new crop development.

The unpredictability of the weather is one of the biggest challenges faced by farmers struggling to adapt to a changing climate. Some areas of the world are becoming hotter and drier, and more intense monsoon rains carry a risk of flooding and crop damage.

A summer of drought and wildfires dramatically hit harvests in Russia this year, leading the government to place a ban on wheat exports that in turn led to a dramatic rise in prices on the international commodity markets.

The authors of a new study argue that adaptation to climate change is possible through a combination of new crops that are more tolerant to heat and water stress, and socio-economic measures such as greater investment.

“Due to the importance of international trade, crop failure is an issue that affects everyone on the planet, not just those in crop-growing regions,” says Andy Challinor of the University of Leeds.

“More extreme weather events are expected to occur in the coming years due to climate change and we have shown that these events are likely to lead to more crop failures. What we need to do now is think about the solutions.

“It is highly unlikely that we will find a single intervention that is a ‘silver bullet’ for protecting crops from failure. What we need is an approach that combines building up crop tolerance to heath and water stress with socio-economic interventions.”

The team studied spring wheat crops in North East China, using a climate model to make weather projections up to the year 2099 and then looked at the effect on crop yields. In parallel they looked at socioeconomic factors to determine how well farmers were able to adapt to drought.

While the study only looked at crops in China, the authors say this methodology can be applied to other major crop-growing regions around the globe.

Details appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“It appears that more developed countries with a higher GDP tend to evolve more advanced coping mechanisms for extreme events,” says Evan Fraser, also at the University of Leeds.

“In China this is happening organically as the economy is growing quickly, but poorer regions such as Africa are likely to require more in the way of aid for such development.

“What is becoming clear is that we need to adopt a holistic approach: new crops for a changing climate and better farming practices that can only come about under more favorable socio-economic conditions.”

The research was funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council EQUIP programme and the Economic and Social Research Council Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy.

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