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Experts Call For More Climate-Proof Crops

February 25, 2009

Many experts say the world is running out of time to develop new seed varieties to confront climate change and head off food shortages that could affect billions of people.

According to a Reuters report, people in Africa and Asia are most at risk from a lack of climate-proof crops.

Scientists in various environmental fields of study will celebrate the first anniversary on Thursday of the opening of a “doomsday” seed vault on the island of Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Arctic.

Governments need to invest more in breeding new seeds, according to Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust

“Unlike the bank that needs to be bailed out this week, this problem is going to be an emergency 20 years from now. But by then it will be too late” he said.

The seed vault, run by the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center in Sweden, located some 600 miles from the North Pole, opened on February 26, 2008 and has since doubled its holdings to 200 million seeds within a year’s time, representing 400,000 varieties.

David Lobell, an expert in food security and the environment at Stanford University, said not enough is being done to develop new varieties of crops.

He said experts are currently working on a way to develop crops that can withstand drought and floods, but exposure to very high temperatures had not been a focus in the past.

He suggested southern Africa should be a top priority, as people there are heavily dependent on crops such as maize in a region likely to be hard hit by climate change. India and Pakistan also face disruptions to crops such as rice and wheat.

David Battisti, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington, called for “tremendous advances” in seed preservation.

“The whole world will be stressed at the same time because of global warming,” he said. “Crops can take a decade to breed and test, with no guarantee of success.”

Battisti predicted in a study last month that climate change would disrupt growth by both crops and livestock and cause serious food shortages for half the world’s population.

He said you couldn’t just move crops to new areas as the climate warms because soils, pests, insect pollinators, daylight hours and other factors differ even if temperatures seem suitable.

Fowler said creating heat-tolerant maize wouldn’t be enough.

“We are going to need new varieties appropriate in Ghana, in South Africa, or Brazil. You need crops adapted all over the place.”

Nearly 90,000 samples of hundreds of seed species from collections in Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, the United States, Syria, Mexico and Colombia will arrive at the seed bank as part of Thursday’s one-year anniversary.

The seed vault is a project meant to be a fail-safe for national collections of everything from potatoes to coconuts, should some sort of natural or man-made disaster devastate the land.

The vault has the capacity to store about 4.5 million samples, or 2 billion seeds.

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