Global warming is placing unprecedented pressure on food producers, particularly smallholders reliant on traditional crops under threat from changing environmental conditions. Researchers are developing new climate-resilient crop varieties - but are these a realistic solution for smallholders?
International plant breeders at CIAT have developed 30 new heat-resistant bean varieties for rising temperatures in Africa and other developing countries to help overcome predictions that, by 2050, climate change could reduce areas suitable for growing beans by 50%. Generally, bean yields start to falter when temperatures exceed 19°C but the new varieties remain productive even when night-time temperatures exceed 22°C.
To help overcome climate-related challenges in rice growing ecosystems, the International Rice Research Institute and partners also announced in early 2015 the release of 28 new rice varieties with high-yielding and stress-tolerance traits to help farmers maintain yields. New varieties include salinity-tolerant rice for Gambia, cold-tolerant rice for Mali and Senegal, and iron-tolerant rice for Burkina Faso, Ghana and Guinea.
According to recent findings by the International Crops Research for Semi-Arid Tropics, hybrid crop varieties perform two times better under heat and water stress than ordinary crops.
However, despite the clear potential of hybrid varieties, there is a need for context- and local-specific climate change adaptation solutions. For staple food crops in the South, hybrids may place a strain on smallholders’ resources and be difficult to cultivate under increasingly unpredictable weather conditions. For example, in maize-growing regions in Kenya and Mozambique, farmers are rejecting new hybrid maize varieties in favour of existing traditional varieties due to insufficient rainfall and the difficulty of obtaining the necessary inputs for growing hybrid seed.
Farmers also preferred the taste of traditional maize and the ability to generate their own seed rather than having to buy new hybrid seed each season. If research is to develop further climate-resilient crops, distribution systems and access to inputs must also be viable for smallholders and farmer preferences for specific crop qualities taken into account.