The Mountain: New Wheat Scientists Say They Can Withstand Extreme Heat and Drought | food

A new drought-tolerant durum wheat variety has been created as part of an international breeding program to enhance climate adaptability in the diet by increasing crop diversity.

Durum wheat is used to make pasta, pizza crusts, and flatbreads such as pita and chapati, as well as for couscous, bulgur, and pastries for desserts such as baklava.

The new Jabal al-Qamh, which means “mountain” in Arabic, was developed by farmers and crop scientists by crossing a commercial durum wheat with a wild relative from an arid region of Syria, to create a new durum wheat variety that can withstand drought.

It’s part of the Crop Trust’s Wild Relatives project, which is using genetically diverse crop varieties to help develop more resilient and adaptable varieties of wheat, barley, rice and potatoes that can withstand the harsh and volatile weather conditions caused by climate collapse.

While it is not yet commercially available, farmers in Morocco will be the first to start growing the new version of durum wheat, which is widely eaten in North Africa and the Middle East, in about three years. Morocco is experiencing its worst drought in four decades, and cereal production has fallen by about 70% due to extremely dry conditions.

Breeders and farmers in drought-affected areas planted several new durum wheat varieties between 2017 and 2021. Mountain stood out because it was able to thrive and produce grain while all commercial durum wheat varieties failed. Scientists said its distinctive black spines also produced a high yield of plump grains that made delicious bread.

Black mountain nails. Photo: Michael Major/Crop Trust

“Many farmers said it was love at first sight when they saw it standing strong when all other varieties were destroyed by drought,” said Filippo Bassi, chief scientist for the Durum Wheat Breeding Program at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. (ICARDA) in Lebanon.

Wheat, the most consumed grain globally, is grown on every continent except Antarctica and eaten by billions of people.

Crop failures due to loss of biodiversity and extreme weather events such as drought, extreme heat, and floods have led to soaring wheat prices and food insecurity in many parts of the world, exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine, as both countries were major exporters of wheat.

Last year, durum wheat prices rose 90% after drought and unprecedented heatwaves hit Canada, one of the world’s largest grain producers, followed a few months later by record rains. Over the past century, Canadian farmers have increasingly relied on high-yielding wheat varieties that are genetically similar, resulting in crucial diversification.

Breeding new varieties of wheat takes years, in a complex, never-ending race against time, as global warming causes climate cataclysms and the emergence of new, adapted or more aggressive pathogens.

Wild relatives are the most resilient relatives of commercial crops, having evolved in nature to withstand challenging conditions such as extreme heat, drought, floods, and poor soils. Plant breeders are increasingly looking to wild and other forgotten varieties stored in seed banks for beneficial genetic diversity, which have been sidelined in favor of yield, uniformity and profits after the Green Revolution.

But the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems warns that in addition to genetic diversity, building resilience in the diet also requires diversity in farms and landscapes, as well as more farmer-led initiatives.

“Farmers have domesticated 7,000 different varieties of crops and donated more than 2.1 million plant species to international genebanks, but most of the profits from this effort have been captured by four or five international seed companies,” said agricultural expert Pat Mooney. Diversity and biotechnology. “[Jabal] It shows what can be achieved through multilateral cooperation where farmers are at the center of the decision-making process.”

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