European Wheat: Crops Not Prepared for Climate Change

Written by | Friday, January 18th, 2019

The production of wheat, a crop sensitive to weather, may be influenced by climate change. The climate is not only warming, it is also becoming more variable and extreme. Such unpredictable weather can weaken global food security if major crops such as wheat are not sufficiently resilient — and if we are not properly prepared. To that end, a group of European researchers have found that the current breeding programmes and cultivar selection practices are not sufficiently resilient to climate change.

Researchers predict that greater variability and extremeness of local weather conditions will lead to reduced yields in wheat and increased yield variability. A recently published paper in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), says that the current breeding programmes do not prepare for variability and uncertainty in the climate. They say that decreased yields are not helpful to food security, but high yield variability is also a problem, as it can lead to a market with greater supposition and no fluctuation in the price.

The researchers base their assessments on thousands of yield observations of wheat cultivars in nine European countries for qualifying how different cultivars respond to weather. The researchers identified the variation of wheat response diversity on farmers’ fields and demonstrated the relation to climate resilience. The yield responses of all cultivars to different weather events were relatively similar within northern and central Europe, and within southern European countries – the latter particularly with regard to durum wheat. There were serious gaps in wheat resilience across all Europe, especially with regard to yield performance under abundant rain.

Wheat is an important staple food crop in Europe and is the leading source of plant protein in our diet globally, so it is important to ensure that we have climate-resilient wheat cultivars on hand. Rain, drought, heat or cold at vulnerable times during the growing season can seriously damage yields. Wheat yield is generally sensitive to even a few days of exposure to waterlogging and to wet weather that favours disease. In addition, heat stress rather than drought sensitivity appears to be a limiting factor for adaptation of wheat to climate change in Europe.

The dominant approach of adapting crops to climate change by tailoring genotypes to the most likely long-term change is likely insufficient. The capacity of a single crop variety to maintain good yield performance under climatic variability and extremes is limited, but diversity in responses to critical weather events can effectively enhance climate resilience. Therefore, a set of cultivars with diverse responses to critical weather conditions is prerequisite to promoting crop climate resilience. The researchers also suggest that the need for climate resilience of staple crops must be better articulated. Increased awareness could lend support to policies framed around resilience through extensive research and breeding programmes, incentives and regulation.

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