While CO2 emissions from humans burning fossil fuels are wrapping the world in a worryingly warming blanket, they could also help make our crops grow faster. But more direct effort is needed to make the most of this chance, say Lewis Ziska from the US Department of Agriculture and an international team of scientists. “Plant breeders often assume that on-going breeding efforts, for example for pest or disease resistance, would by themselves lead to adaptation to any rise in background CO2 levels,” Lewis told Simple Climate. “We’ve shown that this is not the case.”
Throughout the 20th century crop breeding has been one part of a green revolution that has made farmers today able to produce much more food from their fields. But Ziska notes that these improvements in crop yields are slowing. Though climate change and the droughts it brings makes this problem even harder, the gas driving it could provide a way out.
“The gains of the green revolution with respect to population growth have ended,” Ziska said. “As agricultural scientists our goal is to ensure a safe and nutritious supply of food. It is clear we will have to do so with fewer resources, specifically arable land, water and fertilizer. We have long recognized that CO2 is, by itself, a resource as it supplies plants with carbon, the basic building block for growth. Hence we are urging a systematic active effort in selecting cereal lines that could respond to rising CO2 levels by increasing their yields.”
This view springs from a wide range of evidence Ziska and his colleagues brought together in a paper published in the research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week. This included Ziska’s own research showing how CO2 concentrations affected wheat bred during the 20th century, when CO2 rose from around 290 parts per million (ppm) to 380 ppm. That study showed that higher CO2 concentrations increased the amount of wheat produced by forms developed nearer to 1900 more than modern varieties. Read the rest of this entry »