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Scientists Develop New 'Climate Proof' Crops with Help of Nuclear Technology

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“Guillemar” heat temperature stress tolerant rice contributes towards food security in Cuba. (Photo: F. Sarsu/IAEA)

New rice and green bean plants are now being rolled out to help farmers grow more of these staple foods despite higher temperatures caused by climate change. These new ‘climate proof’ crop varieties were developed as part of a five-year project aimed at helping countries to improve food security and adapt to changing climate conditions. The project specifically addressed the improvement of tolerance of rice and bean plants to high temperatures in drought-prone areas.

“Climate change is forcing food producers and farmers to change how they approach agriculture,” said María Caridad González Cepero, a scientist at the National Institute of Agricultural Science in Cuba. “New plant varieties, such as these ‘climate proof’ rice and bean plants, offer a sustainable option for adapting to some of the negative effects of climate change, which is important for ensuring food security today and in the future.”

One of the major consequences of climate change has been the extreme fluctuation in global temperatures. Higher temperatures have a direct and damaging effect on plant development and yields. In many agricultural locations worldwide, temperature extremes are causing plants to suffer, including staple crops such as rice and green beans, also known as the common bean, which are essential to the diets of millions of people worldwide.

To help protect crop-based food sources, a group of plant breeders, plant physiologists, agronomists and plant biotechnologists and experts from the IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), teamed up to develop new ‘climate proof’ crop varieties through a five-year IAEA coordinated research project.

The team began by studying how rice and common bean plants react to normal and aberrant – meaning any climate condition to which a variety of crop is not normally adapted to – climate conditions, and identifying genes related to heat tolerance and higher yields. With this information, they targeted plants with desired traits and bred for these traits using irradiation to speed up the natural process of mutation in plants. This breeding process increases diversity of plants’ traits, allowing scientists to more quickly test and select plants with the desired characteristics. The result was a series of ‘climate proof’ rice and common bean plants that can tolerate high temperature conditions better while producing higher yields compared to local varieties.

One of these new rice varieties called ‘Guillemar’, which is drought tolerant, is now being used in Cuba and has boosted crop yields by 10 per cent. Other countries such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tanzania and Senegal, are also preparing to release new, high-yielding rice varieties suited to each countries’ temperature conditions, while experts in Colombia and Cuba have had success with new varieties of heat-tolerant, higher yielding common bean and tepary bean plants, which they expect to release to farmers by 2020-2021.

More food, more knowledge

Developing new plant varieties can help farmers grow more food and adapt to climate change, but they also help scientists learn more about how plants are affected by climate change and ways to refine and improve the plant breeding process.

Over the course of this five-year project, the team created methods for screening the physiological, genetic and molecular components of plants as well as for accurately assessing the plants’ genetic makeup to identify, select and breed plants with desired traits.

A pre-field screening technique, for example, was refined to help plant breeders accelerate the evaluation of plant varieties in controlled conditions such as a greenhouse or growth chamber. This approach allows them to effectively narrow down the number of possible plants for further field tests from a few thousand to less than 100. By slimming down the options, it can reduce research and development time from around three to five years to one year, which means new plant varieties can reach farmers more quickly to help them stay ahead of climate change and prevent food insecurity.

Many of the team’s methods and techniques are now being made accessible to other researchers to research further. They are being made available through IAEA coordinated research and technical cooperation projects with other teams of scientists, as well as through more than 40 publications, including a recently published open-access guidebook on Pre-Field Screening Protocols for Heat Tolerant Mutants in Rice.

“Climate change is identified as one of the major challenges faced by the planet, and crop adaptation to variations in climate is critical to ensure food and nutrition security,” said Fatma Sarsu, an IAEA scientist and the lead officer of the project. “Interdisciplinary research involving plant breeders, physiologists and molecular biologists is key to the development of new varieties adapted to extreme environments such as drought and high temperatures. Our collaborative research is taking a major step towards addressing crop adaptation to climate change through the development of these rice and bean varieties.“

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