June 7, 2011, by brzjch

“More crop per drop” needed for food security

 There is a drought in the bread basket of England – East Anglia has been without significant rain for several weeks at the crucial growing stages of wheat and barley, and other combinable crops. The grain growing areas of France and Germany are also affected and there are reports that China is also suffering the worst drought in 50 years. In East Anglia current estimates put the yield of wheat and barley down by as much as 50% – there may be total crop loss for some farmers. With an overall average loss of production in the UK of around 10% this translates into a £400 million loss in sales for the arable sector of UK agriculture. No-one can say for sure that this drought is evidence of climate change but the climate change models all point to increased water stress for crop plants over the long term and this is a factor that has to be built into research into global food security.

Dr Ian Taylor and his colleagues in the Plant and Crop Sciences Division, School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham, and Dr Andrew Thompson at the University of Warwick used the phrase “more crop per drop” when they reported the results of work they have carried out on phytohormone abscisic acid (ABA) in tomatoes. This was part of some research on how to breed plants that can produce equivalent yields with reduced water input i.e. improving water use efficiency.  ABA is a central component of plant responses to dehydration and Dr Taylor and his colleagues have previously shown that it is possible to manipulate stomatal behaviour in tomatoes by altering ABA levels in transgenic plants, thus saving water.

Research on drought resistance and increased water use efficiency is clearly critical to sustainable crop production in the future. The current drought in Western Europe will probably affect world grain prices this year but even if this season’s weather and crop yields average out across the major producing regions it’s clear that water-related research will be high on the agenda for all the significant crop plants used in the food chain.

John Strak is Special Professor of Food Economics in the School of Economics at The University of Nottingham, Editor of Whole Hog Brief, Managing Director of FoodEast Ltd and (previously) Managing Director of North Highland Products.

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