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Agriculture despite climate change: "Heat and drought hit the wheat particularly hard"


Drought and heat threaten harvests. Researchers are now trying to grow crops to withstand the changing climate. Agronomist Frank Ordon explains what matters.

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Reporting on climate change is one of the major journalistic challenges of our time. The climate crisis is also one of the most important issues of humanity for SPIEGEL. For this reason, we support an international initiative that seeks to take a look this week: "Covering Climate Now" has been initiated by the Columbia Journalism Review and the Canadian newspaper "The Nation", with more than 200 media companies worldwide including the Guardian, El País, La Repubblica, The Times of India, Bloomberg or Vanity Fair. SPIEGEL is dedicating the cover story of the current issue to the climate crisis this week and every day pays special attention to

SPIEGEL: Experts believe that drought and summer heat will become more frequent and especially extreme with climate change in Germany. What does that mean for agriculture?

Frank Ordon: In the summers of 2018 and 2019, we learned that heat and drought can lead to considerable crop failures for us as well. In addition, other and new plant diseases are gaining in importance as a result of climate change.

SPIEGEL: Why is that?

Ordon: Not only the summer months but also the autumn and winter months get warmer on average. As a result, insects such as aphids are more active and transmit over a longer period harmful viruses on crops such as grain or oilseed rape.

SPIEGEL: Are there any crops in Germany that handle heat and drought well?

Ordon: There are crops that tolerate heat and drought better than others - for example, rye is more resistant than wheat. However, the varieties of the species we cultivate are best adapted to the average climate of the past years, none was specifically bred for heat and drought tolerance. However, breeders are increasingly dealing with this topic.

SPIEGEL: Which plants do you start with?

Ordon: One focus is on wheat. It is the most widely cultivated crop in the world and a vital calorie and protein source for many people. By 2050, we need to increase wheat yields by 1.6 percent annually to feed the growing world population. The G20 nations therefore launched the International Wheat Initiative eight years ago. Researchers worldwide are working together to adapt the wheat to more extreme drought and higher temperatures. The Julius Kühn Institute is also involved.

SPIEGEL: What about wheat in Germany?

Ordon: Heat and drought have hit him particularly hard lately. The extremes have just fallen into the prime and the important phase of grain development. As a result, significantly fewer and smaller grains have formed. But also rapeseed there were big crop failures. This was mainly due to the drought in August and September. Due to the lack of water, the plants sprouted unevenly and it could sometimes develop no productive stocks.

SPIEGEL: Grain is also growing in southern Europe. What's so hard about making our varieties heat and dry?

Ordon: Climate change will not suddenly give us a Mediterranean climate. Winter wheat, which is our most common crop, must withstand cold temperatures during the cold season. Now we have to maintain its previous, positive properties and add heat and dry stress tolerance. However, this ability is determined by many genes. This complicates and slows down the work of the breeders.

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SPIEGEL: Grain that withstands heat, drought, cold and insect attacks while still delivering high yields. Is that possible?

Ordon: That's a challenge. We now know the complete genome sequence of many cultivated species. Last year, the genetic material of wheat was decoded. As a result, breeding research can now more quickly identify genetic networks that are crucial for heat and drought tolerance.

SPIEGEL: If you know the genes, how do breeders integrate them into our varieties?

Ordon: New varieties are usually created by targeted crossing and subsequent selection of the plants with the best properties. No single genes are transmitted. Nevertheless, it can help breeders to know which genes in a plant are responsible for which traits. In genebanks, they can then search for more efficient gene variants and then cross them into the desired variety. However, undesirable properties are often transmitted, which then have to be removed by further breeding.

SPIEGEL: That sounds very expensive.

Ordon: Faster could be done by selectively altering genes in high-performance varieties, for example with the gene scissors Crispr / Cas. However, this procedure is classified as a genetic engineering by the European Court of Justice and therefore does not apply to European variety breeding.

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SPIEGEL: How long does it take to cultivate a new plant variety using conventional methods?

Ordon: You have to expect seven to ten years until a new variety comes on the market. Although this is already much faster due to technological advances than it was a few decades ago, it will still take some time before plants are on the market that are adapted to extreme heat and drought.

SPIEGEL: What can farmers do to protect themselves from crop failures caused by extreme weather?

Ordon: One way is to expand the range of cultivated species. For example, soybean is gaining importance in Germany due to climate change, and its acreage is growing.

SPIEGEL: What uses a broad spectrum of plants?

Ordon: Farmers are risking their crops by cultivating different crops. Extreme weather does not affect all species in the same way. Incidentally, wide crop rotations keep the soil healthy. Even pests are pushed back when over the years grow different crops in a field.

SPIEGEL: Will climate change change supply in the supermarket?

Ordon: I do not think so. Consumers have also failed to notice the crop decline in wheat over the past year. Germany still has a good three million hectares of wheat acreage. Thus, climate change does not mean that we no longer grow wheat. However, new crops such as soybeans, sunflowers, sorghum and lupines are added.

Source: spiegel

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