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Researchers Are Fighting for Food Security by… Watching Flowers Bloom?

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Posted April 20, 2017

Correcting for sampling bias, helped researchers track the migration of the sticky monkey flower. Photo credit: Eugene Zelenko/Wikimedia Commons, GFDL

Food shortages are already a problem in developing countries across the globe, and changes in climate are threatening to make those problems spread to developed countries as well. Scientists around the world are searching for ways to get ahead of potential food shortages and ensure food security for everyone.

One of the things they’ve been doing to help figure out how to ensure there is enough food is…watching flowers bloom. Yes, you read that right. How can blooming flowers help researchers create global food security?

Food Security and Famine

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a section of the United Nations, more than 800 million people around the world suffer from some form of chronic hunger. That lack of food creates a massive destabilizing factor in developing countries, especially in those countries that lack the governing power to ensure their own food security.

The disturbing trend toward famine has already become reality in many parts of the world. Yemen, for example, has upwards of half a million children who are classified as malnourished and in danger of death as a direct result of that malnourishment. That is because, even before the recent unrest, the country did not make or grow much of its own food. Upwards of 90% of the food consumed in Yemen was imported.

Food safety is an essential part of global food security — reforms in food safety standards in the US are designed to ensure food is delivered safely to the consumer and kept at the proper temperature to prevent bacterial growth.

The Effects of Climate Change on Crops

Even in the United States, food security is becoming a concern. Crops that would have provided an amazing harvest are instead withering in the field due to increased temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. This drives up the price of these food items, making it harder for low-income individuals and people in developing countries to afford the amount of food they need to survive.

Prices for food are slowly climbing around the world, even as far back as 2011. Wheat, for example, increased in price by 98%, nearly doubling due to a hot summer that destroyed 2 million kilometers worth of the crop.

Climate change does the crops no favors, but it’s a great thing for the pests and diseases that feed on the plants we’re trying to grow to feed the country. Mild winters, like the ones we’ve had in recent years, don’t get cold enough to kill off insects and microbes that decimate a crop or require the application of toxic pesticides and herbicides to fight off.

When Flowers Bloom

It’s a fairly simple biological function — when the weather warms up in spring, the flowers bloom. Some plants bloom sooner than others, and, until now, we did not understand the biological imperative that controlled that schedule.

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich have cracked one part of the puzzle and discovered the genetic change that controls the blooming mechanism in plants. This genetic control allows the plant to bloom in the spring as well as allowing it to adapt when the warmer temperatures come earlier or later in the year.

If the adapted plant thrives during the growing season, that genetic change becomes part of the plants DNA, allowing it to adapt. The discovery of this gene could help scientists create new strains of the most prolific crops, like corn, soy or wheat, that can adapt more quickly to rapidly changing weather conditions. Similar research threads could focus on creating heat and drought resistant strains of major crops.

This gene will play a major part in helping plants across the globe adapt to climate change on their own, but it might also give us a leg up in protecting crops and making sure we’ve got enough food for future generations.

With the climate continually changing, food security will become essential. Hot summers and mild winters will make it more difficult to grow anything but the hardiest crops, leaving us scrambling to find the best solutions. By taking a look at the genetic switches that tell plants when to slow down for the winter and when to bloom in the summer, we can understand what we need to learn to adapt to these changing weather conditions.

Famine and food shortages are already a problem in developing countries around the world. If we don’t take steps now to counter the problems farmers are already experiencing, we may find that food scarcity becomes a problem in the developed world as well. By watching the flowers bloom, researchers in Munich have taken the first step toward preventing possible famine and food shortages in the future.

The climate is changing. There’s very little we can do to stop that now, but we can focus on solutions to keep it from impacting global agriculture.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes

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