He realised that the “Bermuda bean” had developed a unique root system that makes it more likely to survive tropical storms.
The roots act like a colony. If the mother plant dies off, younger plants around it will survive. The strong winds of Bermuda are likely to have caused the bean to evolve in this way.
As climate change drives more severe and frequent extreme weather, this bean and many similar discoveries could be game changers in the fight for food security.
Negotiators gathered in Poland to debate action on climate change have once again faced the conundrum of how to sustainably feed more people in an era of more extreme weather patterns. Food – the way we grow, catch, transport, process, trade and consume it – is central to climate change.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, changes in climates over the last 30 years have already reduced global agricultural production in the range of one to five per cent per decade globally.
Furthermore, agriculture and food systems account for up to 29 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. In light of this, we need to rapidly transform food systems to make them more resilient and sustainable.
The task is momentous – and increasingly more complex. Most of the world’s population eats too little, too much, or the wrong type or combination of food – at an unsustainable cost to the environment, human health and political stability.
There is no one silver bullet for a challenge this big – it needs changes in policies, farming practices, awareness and behaviour.
One key action offers a promising way forward: the search for new cropping systems that are better adapted to climate conditions. This could involve shifting which crops are grown in which area, but also accelerating the development and wide-scale adoption of new varieties of resilient crops.
In Asia, more than five million farmers now grow a rice variety that can withstand being submerged under water for two weeks. Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute searched for a gene for flood-tolerance. Using traditional breeding approaches, this “Scuba gene” was infused into popularly grown rice varieties in rice-growing countries in Asia and Africa.
In addition, scientists also developed rice varieties that can withstand conditions forecast to become more frequent and intense with climate change such as drought, heat, cold, and soil problems like high salt and iron toxicity.
But where can we find this legacy of plant species which will be the raw material to fuel these advances? Over the last 40 years the world has built up a network of “genebanks” hosted by CGIAR, a global research partnership looking at food security, which already store 768,576 samples of seeds and tree species from all over the world, and we distribute these to scientists worldwide.
In 2017, CGIAR genebanks alone distributed 61,376 seed samples to 95 countries for the research required to bolster production in mostly low-income countries, where undernutrition is a major problem.
These seed samples are now being used to develop “climate-smart” crop varieties that have characteristics that help them better cope with floods, heat, drought and disease.
Late last year, the Bermuda bean was put to an unexpected test. A violent storm swept through the research station and decimated most trials. Only the Bermuda bean was left standing. Let’s learn from that.
Elwyn Grainger-Jones is the executive director of the CGIAR System Organization.