Search is on for climate change-resistant crops


Taro plant

Searching for super crops: One scheme in Papua New Guinea will screen over 20 varieties of the root crop taro for drought and salinity resistance.

Credit: Wikimedia

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LONDON: Thousands of crops, from banana to sweet potato, are being screened to identify varieties that will be most resistant to the future conditions created by climate change.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust is providing around US$300,000 (A$375,000) of funding this year for researchers in 15 developing countries to screen crops for traits that will be useful in adapting food production to climate change.

The international foundation said that around US$200,000 will also be spent next year, with a continued commitment in the long term.

"Sustainable and productive"

"With crop diversity we can have an agricultural system that – if we're smart – is sustainable and productive, can feed people and fuel development," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the trust. "Without it agriculture cannot adapt to anything: pests, disease, climate change, drought, energy constraints … nothing,"

Researchers will screen the crops by growing them in different stress conditions – such as high salinity or high temperature – and assessing how well they grow. Varieties with positive traits will be put into an open access database.

Some crops will also be entered into a 'pre-breeding' program. Integrating one or two genes from an old or wild variety into a modern variety is costly and difficult, says Fowler, and pre-breeding produces early-stage, new varieties with the desired traits, so that plant breeders can get a 'head start' on producing varieties for farmers' fields.

"Plant breeders often have to make quick progress so they're loathe to get involved in the kind of cutting edge research to put exotic traits in [a crop]. So the pre-breeding at least gets that first set of genes into some kind of form that is easier for a plant breeder," he said.

Choice between starvation and paralysis

Funded projects include a scheme in Papua New Guinea to screen over 20 varieties of the root crop taro for drought and salinity resistance. Taro is particularly important to the poor island communities of the Pacific region, as it need not be harvested for a number of years, making for a sustainable source of food and an 'insurance policy' at times when the prices of other staple crops become too high.

Another program in Bangladesh will screen varieties of the grass pea, a hardy crop that is often the only one left in times of environmental stress, and is also grown by the poorest communities.

Long-term consumption of grass pea, however, can lead to paralysis, as the plant produces a neurotoxin; giving people a choice between starvation or paralysis. Researchers will search for varieties with low levels of this neurotoxin.