More than 500 years after Spanish priests brought wheat seeds to Mexico to make wafers for the Catholic Mass, those seeds may bring a new kind of salvation to farmers hit by global warming.
Scientists working in the farming hills outside Mexico City found the ancient wheat varieties have particular drought-and heat-resistant traits, such as longer roots that suck up water and a capacity to store more nutrients in their stalks.
They are crossing the plants with other strains developed at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in El Batan to grow types of wheat that can fight off the ill effects of rising global temperatures.
“It’s like putting money in the bank to use, in this case, for a not rainy day,” said scientist Matthew Reynolds.
Seed breeders say they are the first line of defence protecting farmers from climate change, widely expected to heat the planet between 1 and 3 over the next 50 years.
Intensified drought, together with more intense and unpredictable rainfall, could hit crop yields hard.
Last year, Mexico had the lowest rainfall in 68 years, and this year an active hurricane season
battered corn-growing areas near the U. S. border.
Corn farmer Cesar Longoria, 56, said his harvest dropped by 30 per cent in the 2009 drought, and more than half of his fields were destroyed by floods in July when Hurricane Alex hammered northern Mexico.
“For the people who depend on corn this is a tragedy,” said Carlos Salazar, head of the national corn growers’ association.
ONE BILLION UNDERNOURISHED
Mexico is not alone in fearing climate change.
The number of hungry people in the world had been rising for more than a decade, reaching a record spike in 2009 triggered by the economic crisis and high domestic food prices in several developing countries. Nearly one billion people were considered undernourished this year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently reported, and jumps in food prices have led to riots and social unrest.
In India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, it’s feared rising temperatures could cut crop output by up to 25 per cent in the next half-century.
India was one of the first nations to receive the benefits of innovative techniques of plant scientist Norman Bourlag, the architect of the Green Revolution. Bourlag started his pioneering research in the 1940s in Mexico, considered a birthplace for corn where native races of the grain dating to long before the Spanish conquest survive.
Now the genes of some of those races are being mapped to isolate useful traits to produce improved lines.
“Many of these land races have been around for tens of thousands, if not millions, of years and have lived through wide variations in the climate,” Thomas Payne at the seed bank said. “They hold valuable information that can be used to confront the uncertainties of the future.”
Seeds of change:A scientist stands in a storage room for grains in the International Maize and Wheat
Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in El Batan on the outskirts of Mexico City.