Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Resurgent disease, climate change threaten wheat

Charles J. Hanley in the Chronicle Herald via AP (Nova Scotia): …The future of wheat — in many ways the future of food — was the subject of an emergency meeting of agricultural officials who flew to Rome from around the world in late September, concerned over skyrocketing prices. … Since 2005, the FAO’s cereals price index has doubled. Meanwhile, the number of chronically undernourished in the world has swelled, standing today at an FAO-estimated 925 million — one-seventh of humanity.

…In the face of leapfrogging prices, stagnating yields and shifting climate zones, wheat cannot be counted on to fill mankind’s stomach in the future as it has since at least 7000 BC. And affordable substitutes are often unavailable in places like India and Egypt. "Humanity faces tremendous challenges to food security," the world’s top wheat researchers conclude in a blueprint for a stepped-up strategy to produce more of the grain.

Across the 4,100-metre-high Tlaloc sierra from Taboada’s farm — the mountain where Aztec farmers prayed to their rain god — these researchers search for more scientific ways to boost crop yields at CIMMYT, Spanish-language acronym for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, whose $60-million budget and global staff of 700 are supported by governments and foundations worldwide. The most urgent task facing CIMMYT is to stop the spread of the virulent wheat stem rust, first identified in Uganda in 1999 and dubbed Ug99.

…The biggest challenges may come from climate change. Although wheat might first flourish, it would eventually suffer in a warmer world. … "The evolution of pests and diseases is very much a function of climate," said Matthew Reynolds, CIMMYT’s chief of wheat physiology. "If the climate is changing, then new races can spring up in a very unpredictable fashion. It could be seen as the greatest threat of climate change to agriculture."

…They have big plans: A year-old global research consortium has set a goal of boosting wheat yields by 50 per cent in 20 to 25 years. It will mean "redesigning" the plant. They’re consulting structural engineers, for example, about how a stem can support a fatter head of grain.

Getting that fatter head may require genetic modification, the engineering of life forms that still arouses public opposition. Such opposition is "self-delusion," said Thomas A. Lumpkin, CIMMYT’s director-general. "GM is necessary."…

Photograph of a wheat field taken by Tarquin, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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