An Urgent Need – Feeding the world in an era of climate change

Global climate change is accelerating and is now affecting food production and causing food prices to rise. The imminent 5th assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN) due this September will unambiguously state that that rapid and major climate change is underway and we must prepare for it immediately. Clearly there is a need to ensure food availability at reasonable prices under conditions of increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather. Although successful, current food production is largely based on a few varieties grown for the most part in mass-production ways. This is a “few-eggs-in-a-few-baskets” approach that is at high risk to the unpredictable but certainly extreme weather conditions of the near future and already evident in parts of the world.

Diffuse Adaptation

One important way to build resilience and adaptation to change and to lower the risk of major crop failures and high food prices is to grow a diversity of varieties of a crop in a variety of ways and places. This “many-eggs-in-many-baskets” approach diffuses the risk to climate uncertainty and extremes, potentially engages many growers, fosters innovation and helps conserve crop biological diversity. In simple terms this approach can be called diffuse adaptation, and like an insurance plan spreads the risk, and encourages forward thinking.

Heritage Varieties

The approach depends on cultivating a diversity of varieties (many known as heritage varieties) in many sites and reliably recording their performance under different climates measured by reliable weather instruments. Traditionally the knowledge of performance of heritage varieties was anecdotally recorded by growers and passed on over many years. Heritage varieties are being lost at an alarming rate, and with them the rich genetic diversity that is critical to future food security. With the current rapid rate of climate change and urgency to adapt, the traditional approach and conventional breeding and agricultural approaches are not enough. It is vital that growers observe performance across as wide a range of conditions as possible, share their observations, and thus expand the choices for other growers and increase opportunities for innovation. Furthermore by being aware of the climatic diversity of the raw living material, breeders will be better informed about choosing parents for crosses.

 

Why  Heritage Potatoes?

Food Security

Potatoes have traveled a long way from the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia where they were first domesticated.  They are the world’s fourth most important food crop, eaten around the world by more than a billion people.

Globally, there are more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes, selected and locally adapted by growers to suit local conditions and cultural preferences.  Cultivated potatoes come in a range of colours, shapes and sizes.  In Canada, early European settlers brought different varieties with them, and over time, they have been selected for local conditions and taste.

The rich genetic diversity held within heritage varieties is the product of thousands of years of plant breeding and seed saving by farmers around the world. Locally adapted crops are an important part of our agricultural heritage; they are also critical to our future food sustainability.  Unfortunately, heritage varieties of agricultural crops are being lost at an alarming rate.

Potatoes are easy to grow and as such can be part of a strategy of locally grown, food security.

Potatoes and Climate Change

Climate change is a major threat to food security. The extent and urgency of the potential effects of changing global climates are not adequately being factored into the development of food sustainability strategies.

Conserving heritage varieties helps Canadian farmers prepare for climate change in several ways. These varieties contain vital traits needed for adaptation to different climatic characteristics and they have important genetic variation that may protect them against emerging diseases. They also have the potential be used in breeding programs to improve nonheritage varieties and increase crop resilience to a range of stress factors.

Conserving Heritage Varieties

Good information about heritage varieties is not widely available, and many standard characteristics, such as the number of days to maturity, are unknown. Growers need this basic information to decide which varieties will grow well in their local soils and climate as well as to help determine cultural practices (when to plant, how to amend the soil, how to minimize pest outbreaks) to optimize yield. Even less is known about the influence of climatic stressors (heat, humidity, drought, rainfall) on heritage varieties.

Knowing such crop traits is especially important in an era of shifting climatic zones and the development of new climatic regimes. Suitable or optimal areas for growing potatoes will certainly shift northward in general and upward in mountainous regions. Local site conditions such as the optimal soil type for a particular variety may change as new climates and weather patterns develop.

Why Phenology?

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes in plants and animals and how they are influenced by seasonal and yearly variations in weather and climate. Key events for plants that respond to variations in climate include germination, flowering and fruit ripening.

Changes in the timing of events like flowering are highly sensitive to climate change. Many plants have already begun to flower days earlier than they did in the past, and phenology is considered an important indicator of climate change impacts.

Farmers need to understand plant phenology and local climate in order to know when to plant to avoid frosts, when to harvest, as well as how weather affects the development of plant pathogens and insects. Climatic uncertainty and new extremes means that farmers are less able to predict the timing of life events of their crop plants. At the same time, we know almost nothing about the climatic profiles and suitability of heritage varieties.

Crop-climate project participants observe phenological development of key stages in potatoes in locations across Canada. In this way, we hope to develop climatic profiles of heritage varieties to improve long-term food security under shifting climates.

Crop-Climate Project Background

In spring 2012 The Garden Institute of BC undertook a pilot study (Project Co-Managers Richard Hebda and Sharon Rempel) to test the feasibility of using standard, field-deployed weather recording equipment to define the “climatic” characteristics of heritage varieties of wheat and potatoes. The data were to be collected by “farmer”–scientists in several different climatic zones in Canada. The idea was that such data would enable people in communities to develop their own capacity to adapt food production to climate change.

Food sustainability already challenges the globe because nearly a billion people are chronically undernourished and food production has major negative impacts on the environment. Many solutions have been proposed at the global scale such as improving yields, using resources more efficiently, and even changing human diets (Foley et al. 2011). However the extent and urgency of the potential effects of changing global climates are not adequately being factored into the development of food sustainability strategies.

Heritage varieties of agricultural crops are being lost at an alarming rate. Heritage plants may be defined in various ways, though they are generally considered to be older cultivars that have been maintained and passed down by a family or shared within a small community. They are generally grown on a smaller scale than varieties grown in industrial agriculture. For the purposes of the Crop-Climate Project, ‘heritage’ plants include many garden-variety and locally developed varieties that are grown on a small scale, regardless of how old a cultivar is, as well as landraces of wheat.

The rich genetic diversity held within heritage varieties is the product of thousands of years of plant breeding and seed saving by farmers around the world. Locally adapted crops are an important part of our agricultural heritage; they are also critical to our future food sustainability.

Conserving heritage varieties helps Canadian farmers prepare for climate change in several ways. These varieties contain vital traits needed for adaptation to different climatic characteristics and they have important genetic variation that may protect them against emerging diseases. They also have the potential be used in breeding programs to improve non-heritage varieties and increase crop resilience to a range of stress factors.

Good information about heritage varieties is not widely available, and many standard characteristics, such as the number of days to maturity, are unknown. Growers need this basic information to decide which varieties will grow well in their local soils and climate as well as to help determine cultural practices (when to plant, how to amend the soil, how to minimize pest outbreaks) to optimize yield. Even less is known about the influence of climatic stressors (heat, humidity, drought, rainfall) on heritage varieties.

Knowing such crop traits is especially important in an era of shifting climatic zones and the development of new climatic regimes. Suitable or optimal areas for growing potatoes and wheat will certainly shift northward in general and upward in mountainous regions. Local site conditions such as the optimal soil type for a particular variety may change as new climates and weather patterns develop.

To be clear the project in 2012 was intended as a pilot, a proof of principle and approach, rather than a strict agronomic trial. Such tightly controlled replicated trials are best undertaken in established institutional facilities, but such is not the case for heritage varieties and landraces.  We strongly encourage governments and agricultural institutions to do so. Our premise is that many growers making many observations with reliable equipment, growing and observing crop varieties in a standard manner may be able to rapidly generate useful and critical data. With the anticipated quickening pace of climate change, the sooner such information is widely available the better.