Saturday, November 24, 2007

Crop research 'must switch to climate adaptation' Climate-change and crop experts have called for a paradigm shift in agricultural research to focus on making plants more resilient to global warming rather than on increasing yields. Martin Parry, co-chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and William Dar, director-general of the International Centre for Research in Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, said the focus of crop research should be reoriented towards adaptation to environmental stress, such as rising temperatures and water scarcity. "Adaptation is crucial. Drought-proofing of crops by developing heat-resistant varieties is probably one of the key elements," said Parry at an international symposium on climate change yesterday (22 November).

Dar said changes in climate will alter populations and the geographic spread of pests and pathogens, which also need to be countered with more resistant plant varieties. Experts from ICRISAT urged governments and international donor agencies to invest more in crop research in view of the adverse projections on agriculture due to global warming. They said focus should shift to crops such as pearl millets and sorghum that grow in arid and semi-arid tropics. Refocusing research in this way would have implications in training programmes for plant breeders and agricultural education systems, they say. Production of rice, staple food of billions, most of whom live in poor countries, will be the most affected by global warming, as higher temperatures shift the time of pollination and affect grain formation, said Dyno Keatinge, ICRISAT deputy director-general.

Increased frequency of droughts as a result of global warming will reduce crop production, with most of the people vulnerable to hunger being in Africa, said Parry. He warned that the world is already starting to witness global warming, with a half-degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures in the past century, and a further 0.6 degree increase expected from the world's present levels of greenhouse-gas emissions. Colin Chartres, director-general of the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka, said it is time for climate scientists to scale down global-warming models to be more region-specific, and even river-basin-specific, in order to determine appropriate water-management strategies in agriculture. Dar said ICRISAT's strategy looks at climate change in two time frames: a short-to-medium-term strategy to help farmers cope better with rainfall variability, and a medium-to-long-term strategy to adapt crops such as pearl millet, sorghum, chickpea, groundnut and pigeon pea to grow in a warmer world.

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