Scientists are making wheat climate-ready Change

Drones with thermal imaging technology are able to read temperatures from the canopies above northern Colorado’s wheat fields.

The goal is to find wheat plants that are cooler than others, which will be a huge advantage in a world warming.

Extreme heat and cold snaps are testing the resilience of plants globally. Droughts are threatening water reserves. Floods are devastating crops. Climate change can threaten global wheat supplies if it is not addressed.

Wheat is used to make breads and porridges as well as alcoholic drinks. It provides 20 percent of the total calories for the entire world. According to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, based east of Mexico City, 1.2 billion people in developing countries rely on wheat for their survival.

Throughplant breeding is a way to ensure that you have enough food on your table. It involves cross-pollinating two plants. It is hoped that their offspring will inherit the most desirable traits of their parents. This could be wheat traits such as baking qualities, resistance to disease, heat tolerance, or even bread quality.

Associate professor Esten Mason was the head of Colorado State University’s wheat breeding program. He recalled an intense two-week period in June. CSU’s wheat fields were wilted as temperatures hovered around the mid-90s during drought conditions. They produced only 50 bushels an acre, compared with the normal 80.

This was bad news to farmers. Breeders saw this as an opportunity. If certain plants perform better, these plants could be chosen to produce new plants that are more heat-tolerant.

Wheat ears seen in a field in the village of Fyodorovka in Russia.
Credit to Erik Romanenko/TASS via Getty Images

Mason said, “You are constantly responding to and moving forward.” Mason stated, “That is the goal: Every breeding cycle to make progress.”

CSU can be found about one hour and twenty minutes north of Denver, at the western end of America’s breadbasket. The Great Plains are where North America’s wheat is grown, stretching from Texas to the Canadian Prairies.

Bread production in a bakery in the town of Atma, northern Syria, Idlib, where bread is distributed to the people of the camps near the Syrian-Turkish border on June 24, 2021.
Credit to rami alayed/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Wheat varieties, like all other plants on Earth have their preferred environment. They will thrive if the environment is right with good rainfall and temperatures.

They could be at risk of stunting wheat growth, which can lead to smaller grains or even death.

Plants can become “over-eager” if the first part of the growing seasons is too hot. Matthew Reynolds, head of wheat physiology, CIMMYT, said that they mature too fast and don’t get as tall as they should. They are focused on growing tall and neglect leaf production, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Due to increasing droughts in the world, wheat plants must be able access water at a lower cost and have deeper root systems.

Reynolds stated, “Imagine that you are carrying a backpack filled with water. You have to travel 20 kms of desert.” You have a strategy that is based on what you know, how your body works, and the season. The problem with a plant that can accomplish all of this is its inability to adapt to new seasons.

A 2011 drought in southern Colorado destroyed a significant amount of crops like winter wheat.
Credit to RJ Sangosti/the Denver Post via Getty Images

Higher yields could be achieved by choosing wheat varieties that have better root systems in drought-prone regions.

Reynolds stated that infrared technology is used to examine the root structure of wheat plants. This allows breeders to see beneath the soil, which Reynolds says is much faster than digging up the roots.

Researchers can now look at the DNA of a plant to determine if it has certain characteristics. This allows them to predict their success better.

CSU trials have compared harvests from an older variety of wheat called Kharkof to see if they compare with newer varieties. This was done in order to assess their performance since the 1930s. Mason stated that the yields of this older variety are 50-75 percent lower than those produced by the new varieties.

Wheat harvested in July from a state in northern Germany is shown at a mature wheat field of the Cord Muller-Scheessel farm.
Credit to Bernd Wustneck/dpa/picture Alliance via Getty 1

The Colorado Wheat Growers Association estimates that 90 percent of the nearly 2 million acres of Colorado wheat is made up of varieties created at CSU. More of these varieties can also be found growing in other states.

Mason noted that Byrd, a new wheat variety from the program, had an exceptional drought tolerance and was resistant to some debilitating diseases. It had a significant impact on the state’s wheat production.

It is important to breed for the local environment and problems. Wheat is an international enterprise. Many countries have companies or government institutions that aren’t investing the required resources in these endeavors, or don’t have the funds to spare.

Reynolds listed vulnerable regions around the Mediterranean and southern Africa as well as anywhere else around the Equator. Droughts around the globe, including in Madagascar and Brazil, are drying crops and sapping water reserves.

He stated that the global water resources situation was not good. “And many small farmers in the global South are not in a financial position to purchase sophisticated irrigation equipment.”

CIMMYT is a network of growers and research institutions that works with private companies. This allows them to develop effective breeding programs to produce staple food products where it’s most needed.

These problems aren’t just for wheat. Many plants we depend on for fuel and food are vulnerable to climate change. Breeding them requires funding, training and hard work.

Reynolds stated, “We are living on borrowed time.” It’s time for us to leave.

Publited Fri, 13 August 2021 at 13:28.58 +0000

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