Food Crop Success Or Failure And The Impacts Of Climate Change
July 23, 2013

New Studies Examine Link Between Food Crops and Global Warming

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

In light of growing concern over the potential impact of climate change on the global agricultural industry, scientists are searching for new ways to help ensure global access to some of the most important food crops.

In one such study, Toshichika Iizumi of the National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan and an international team of colleagues report they have discovered a way to use climate data to help predict some crop failures several months prior to harvest.

Iizumi's team found there is a strong association between temperature and soil moisture and the yield of wheat and rice at harvest time in approximately one-third of the world's cropland. For those two crops, computer models could be used to predict possible failures up to 12 weeks in advance for roughly 20 percent of global cropland, they explain in the latest edition of the journal Nature Climate Change.

"You can estimate ultimate yields according to the climatic condition several months before," Molly Brown, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Biospheric Sciences Laboratory and a co-author on the study, said in a statement. "From the spring conditions, the preexisting conditions, the pattern is set."

Iizumi, Brown and their associates set out to examine how reliable and timely crop failure forecasts were in order to help government officials and others to plan accordingly. They created a new crop model that factored in temperature and precipitation forecasts, as well as satellite data from 1983 through 2006, and then examined that information to determine how accurately it predicted actual crop yield or crop failure.

They focused on four crops: corn, soybeans, wheat and rice. The model was most successful when it came to wheat and rice, and was capable of predicting crop failure in some regions several months in advance. Furthermore, their model was able to forecast some slight changes in crop yields, not just the massive crop failures that typically result from severe drought conditions or other forms of extreme weather.

Separate research, led by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust), included a threat assessment of 29 different and essential food crops. That study revealed "severe threats" to more than half of wild relatives to those crops, which the study authors note are not adequately preserved in genebanks and remain inaccessible to researchers and plant breeders for enhancement purposes.

In a three-year study, the Crop Trust, the Kew Millennium Seed Bank Partnership and an international team of experts from various agricultural research institutes assessed for the first time the conservation gaps for the most significant non-domestically grown crop cousins on a global scale.

"This is a major step forward in the global effort to make our food crops more resilient to the effects of climate change," said Andy Jarvis, head of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture's Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area, which conducted the research. "Crop wild relatives are a potential treasure trove of useful characteristics that scientists can put to good use for making agriculture more resilient and improving the livelihoods of millions of people."

The assessment revealed 54 percent of the crop wild relatives on the target list are considered high priority for preservation, as they either have not yet been collected or their existing collections are inadequate. The crops that are most vulnerable are eggplant, potato, apple, sunflower and carrot, the researchers said, as a sizable number of their wildly-growing relatives are considered high collection priorities.

In addition, sorghum, finger millet and other key cereal crops in Africa are said to be high risk, with the collection of their wild relatives being dubbed a priority. Nations with the richest number of priority crop relatives include Australia, Bolivia, China, Cyprus, Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Mozambique, Peru, Portugal, South Africa, Turkey and the US, the researchers added.

"Adapting agriculture to climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. Crop wild relatives are already being used to make improvements to our food crops right now and are extremely valuable economically as well, but they are underutilized," explained Dr. Ruth Eastwood, Crop Wild Relative Project Coordinator from Kew's Millennium Seed Bank.

"We want to ensure access to the wild genes that could boost the crops relied on by some of the world's poorest people. These wild genes have the potential to increase yields, pest resistance and tolerance to extreme temperatures," added Jane Toll, Project Manager at the Global Crop Diversity Trust.