Feeding the world despite climate change
Food security is threatened by climate change. If breeders can continue to improve plant traits, farmers should be able to ensure the world’s food supply.
However, climate change will present challenges, which will be exacerbated by the continued growth of the human population. The FAO has estimated that food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to nourish the additional 2.3 billion new members of the human population.
Climate change will generate three main threats to agricultural production:
- the appearance of new insect pests and diseases;
- more stressful growing conditions (e.g., drought, extreme heat);
- a temperature-mediated shift in the agricultural landscape. For example, crops more traditionally found in southern France will gradually shift northwards.
Dealing with diseases and insect pests
Since the origins of agriculture, diseases and insect pests have always threatened crops. Consequently, improving resistance or tolerance is a significant concern in plant breeding research. The ultimate aim is to preserve yields and quality, and thus ensure the world’s food supply. Seeds are the basis for plant improvement.
Climate change is causing the emergence of new pests and parasites in France. For example, the Mediterranean corn borer is originally from Africa. However, over the past 20 years, it has progressively travelled north and is now found in southern France. However, new corn varieties have been bred that display greater tolerance to this pest.
Dealing with climate-related stress
Climate change may throw the French agricultural landscape into complete disarray. According to climatologists, the global temperature will rise 2 to 5°C by the end of the century. Crops more traditionally found in southern France will gradually shift northwards, moving 180 to 240 kilometres north for each 1°C increase in temperature.
Consequently, we will need to breed plants that are adapted to new production regions. Plant breeding dates back to the Neolithic, when humans carried out mass selection based on plants’ morphological traits. One of the first traits selected for was ease of cultivation. Then, humans began to get into the finer details, selecting individuals that were better suited to certain conditions, more resistant, more productive, or more nourishing.
Over the centuries, the fruits of this labour spread across the world, and plant species began being grown in areas far distant from their native ranges.