July 25, 2018
"We are researching potatoes that can withstand significant heat stress as spikes in temperature may become more common"
Scientists of the James Hutton Institute have alerted about the potential impact of extreme weather events - such as the current heatwave - on crop production, suggesting the development of stress-resistant crops as an important resource to preserve food security in the face of increased temperatures.
Speaking to BBC World Service programme Newshour, Professor Derek Stewart, Hutton agri-food sector leader, said some crops like barley and oilseed rape are coming out of the heatwave quite well, but it only takes a slight increase in temperature to reduce potato yields severely. The problem is not exclusive to the UK, as there are reports of weather issues across the northern hemisphere, including India, China and Japan.
“Some crops benefit from the hot weather – winter barley and some spring barley crops are being harvested now, and it looks like some of them could be collecting premium prices, particularly for distilling and brewing.
“However, we could potentially see increases in the prices of food derived from cereals, such as bread, due to the need to import grain to cover for reduced UK yields. At the same time, agricultural countries in the northern hemisphere are getting hammered just as badly by the hot weather, which means we could be well looking at scarcity of resources.”
Professor Stewart says relying on crop imports from the southern hemisphere may be difficult, due to the impact of the weather on agricultural production in places like Australia, which had severe temperatures last year.
“What is needed is a transformational change in the crops we’re looking at - crops that will manage these extremes.
“For instance, we at the James Hutton Institute are researching potatoes that can withstand significant heat stress because we are likely to see this feature going forward. Heat tolerance is especially important for potato seed exports to warmer countries such as Egypt and Israel.
“The average temperatures are rising. This year’s event seems to have been an extreme one, but these spikes in temperature may become more common.”
Scientists at the James Hutton Institute and the University of St Andrews have developed a technique to ‘engineer’ heat tolerance in potato crops, potentially providing potato breeders with a valuable tool in their quest to create varieties suited to changing climates.
Scottish Government and EU funding is supporting efforts to extend this work to investigate the combined effects of heat and drought stresses, making use of the extensive Commonwealth Potato Collection of over 1500 potato types, curated at the James Hutton Institute.