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Can we soon grow climate-resilient crops?

Our monthly climate change update looks at how to feed the world on a warmer planet. The production of important crops such as grain can be severely affected by heat waves and droughts. Can scientists unlock the secrets of the most resilient crops and use them to grow climate resilient crops? A report and the latest data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service in Climate Now.

Can we grow climate-proof crops?

Scientists in the Netherlands are looking for crops that can cope with heat waves and droughts.

Current climate data

First, the latest data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service, showing that the world has just experienced the third warmest June on record, with temperatures 0.3 degrees above the 1991-2020 average.

In Europe, June was marked by an exceptional heatwave, reflected in this map of monthly average temperature anomalies. Individual temperature records have been set in many parts of Europe – some examples:

32.5 degrees in Banak in northern Norway – almost 20 degrees above the average high for June.

40.6 degrees in Rochefort in western France – also around 20 degrees above the average high.

And 40.4 degrees in Knin in Croatia, 12 degrees above the average high for June.

The drought in northern Italy has also intensified in the past month. If you compare the above image from June 2020 with the following image of the same region from 2022, you can see the difference.

And on the following chart of soil moisture anomalies, you can see how much of Italy and a whole band from Portugal across Europe to the Caspian Sea have drier than average soil.

The report asks whether it is possible to breed more climate-resilient crops? As the population grows on our warming planet, there will be a need for wheat and barley varieties that are better able to cope with heat waves and droughts. Euronews reporter Jeremy Wilks met Dutch researchers working on the topic.

Barley fields in the east of the Netherlands form the basis of our food system – this grain provides important calories for humans and animals. The problem is that the effects of climate change are already reducing the ability of these plants to produce food, as biologist Wilma van Esse explains:

"There are yield losses, e.g. due to extreme heat in India or droughts like we are experiencing in Europe," says the assistant professor of plant developmental biology, Wageningen University. "And based on what we now know about climate change, these events will become more frequent in the future."

Research is in full swing

We have no time to lose, as the process of identifying new crop strains that produce acceptable yields under high stress can take decades.

For this purpose, different barley varieties from all over the world are exposed to different heat waves and drought periods in a controlled environment. The plants react differently depending on their age, explains Wilma van Esse:

"For example, if drought hits early in development, a plant may develop fewer side shoots. But if drought or heat happens later in development, there may end up being fewer seeds."

Healthy roots are also required to keep the yield high, many types of barley do not grow well in dry soil. Viola Willemsen searches for the genetic traits of the most resilient root systems:

"These variants are collected from all over the world, at different altitudes, climate zones and at different temperatures," says the associate professor of biology of plant development at Wageningen University: "We study these root systems under different conditions – i.e. with water and without water – and see which one performs best."_

What makes climate resilient plants?

Will there ever be crops as productive as the current one that can cope with climate change?

"What characterizes climate-proof plants? That's a good question," says Viola Willemsen, "because if they are drought-resistant, are they also resistant to flooding or heat? Often not. Finding a variety that can do everything is probably not possible."

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