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Few Researchers Seeking Crop Solutions For Future Climate

A corn field in Texas withers from drought

While we don't know exactly what growing conditions will look like a century from now, we have a good idea of what's coming down the road. Temperatures will be higher in most places, and many areas will suffer from severe drought as rainfall patterns shift.

Droughts linked to climate change are already affecting food supplies around the world, from Asia and Africa to Texas and California.

Scientists also expect a dramatic increase in carbon dioxide and ground-level ozone levels. But few are investigating ways to adapt to those conditions, to develop resistant plants or take full advantage of the potential positive effects of higher CO2.

An Open Field

Andrew Leakey, associate professor and plant biologist at the University of Illinois, has been growing crops in simulated climate conditions. He and his team pipe CO2 and ozone into open-air fields, raising temperatures and deflecting natural rainfall to test possible climate recipes of the future.

"We've been worried about drought for 8,000 years, probably. None of the major seed companies and most of the farmers are thinking ‘what can we do to avoid the problems of ozone?'" he said.

The good news is that researchers could breed plants that take full advantage of the rising carbon dioxide, or ones that are especially hardy against toxic ozone.

An expected increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have a small positive effect on plant growth, but the effect is too small to offset the other stresses.

A recent study, on which Leaky was an author, even found that rising CO2. levels could make crops less nutritious, with particular deficiencies in zinc and iron.

A Sluggish Industry

The problem is that agricultural R&D isn't very nimble. To drum up interest and funding for the kind of rigorous research that's required, it may take 10 to 15 years to get a new crop through biotechnology or crop-breeding pipelines and onto farmers' fields, Leakey said.

"We're talking about things that happen gradually over decade or century time scales, and so an awful lot of human decision-making is made on weekly to monthly to yearly time scales," he said. "Election cycles are a lot quicker than climate change."

Despite the gloomy forecast and barriers ahead, Leakey finds some cause for "guarded optimism."

"I think it can be done. If you look at crop improvement over the recent decades, there's been really spectacular improvements in crop yields," he said.

Read More:

  • Testing Future Conditions For The Food Chain (New York Times)
  • When Can A Big Storm Or Drought Be Blamed On Climate Change? (NPR)

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