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Wheat varieties susceptible to weather extremes

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European seed companies neglect the resistance to climate change when breeding wheat varieties. Especially in Germany, but also in other European countries, the cultivated varieties are susceptible to weather extremes such as heat, drought or heavy rain, reports an international team of researchers in the "Proceedings" of the US National Academy of Sciences ("PNAS"). The background is the rather one-sided breeding for characteristics such as high yield, stalk stability or disease resistance.

Helena Kahiluoto's team at the Technical University of Lappeenranta in southern Finland (LUT) writes that food security also depends on field crops being able to withstand extreme weather conditions. Climatic factors can explain about a third to a half of yield fluctuations in Western Europe. Ultimately, this has an influence on prices and thus on the food safety of the population.

The research team, including members of the Leibniz-Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) in Muencheberg near Berlin, evaluated systematic field trials with soft and durum wheat varieties from 1991 to 2014 for their resistance to weather extremes for nine countries - including Belgium, Denmark, France and Slovakia. The evaluation included data from 140 fields in Germany alone.

According to the data, this weather-related resistance declined from the beginning of the millennium in almost all the countries studied. The only exception was Finland. The authors certify in particular that the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain and Italy use varieties that are one-sidedly oriented towards yield and disease resistance. They speak of a "diversity desert"..

The worrying decline in the ability to buffer the increasing weather variability with the current portfolio of wheat varieties in Europe and to keep yields stable even under extreme weather events is apparently an expression of too one-sided a breeding," the authors write. Seed farms have set their breeding targets to increase yield and disease resistance, not tolerance to drought or high temperatures. They may have underestimated the increasing climatic uncertainty.

The resistance of wheat to climate-induced weather caprioles was simply underestimated, emphasizes co-author Claas Nendel from ZALF. "It is very difficult to breed a wheat variety that is resistant to all climatic influences and at the same time offers high yields. This can only be achieved through a large genetic diversity in the varieties and a high range of tolerances." Given the predicted climatic changes, the current portfolio is not sufficient to distribute the risk of weather-related yield losses well.

This is not only true for the investigated parts of Europe. "We are constantly observing large-scale weather-related crop failures worldwide that affect world market prices," explains Nendel. However, the researcher assumes that seed farms will react and adapt their varieties more strongly to climate fluctuations if years with such extreme weather conditions as in the summer of 2018 become more frequent.


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