by Jim Robbins
It may be coming to a bakery near you: Bread made from wheat that has had its photosynthetic mechanism refashioned to help it flourish on a warmer planet.
Despite the fact a number of researchers — some funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — are scrambling to create this new breed of wheat, it won’t be arriving any time soon. Increasing temperatures are already taking a toll on the world’s wheat fields. But a new heat-resistant wheat that will replace the types currently grown is a decade or more off in the future.
“The largest single global change that threatens food security is high temperature,” said Donald Ort, a professor of plant biology and crop sciences at the University of Illinois who is working on a project called RIPE — Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency — to enhance photosynthesis in food crops, which would also help beat the heat.
The problem is being seen throughout the world. In 2010 and 2012, for example, Russian wheat growers saw their yields decline dramatically because of a combination of hot weather and drought.
“It caused 30 percent reduction in national production, which is really huge,” said Senthold Asseng, a researcher at the University of Florida. Russians made up for the shortfall by reducing exports, he noted, but “If you lose a third of your production in India or Bangladesh that could be a huge disaster.”
There is a concerted global effort to help agriculture adapt to the new climate reality as warming continues apace. The most urgent adaptation initiatives, experts say, involve the world’s main food crops — especially wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans, which together provide two-thirds of human caloric intake. In a study released last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that without fundamental changes in agriculture, the world risks increasing food insecurity.
It’s not just about food. Food shortages are an important driver of social problems. For example, a drought from 2007 until 2010 is considered one of the main factors leading to the civil war in Syria.