Harvests that form a vital element of the diets of 4.5 billion people are being devastated by global heating. Now research has found a key to create a heat-resistant variety.
It is the plant that changed humanity. Thanks to the cultivation of wheat, Homo sapiens was able to feed itself in ever-increasing numbers, transforming groups of hunter-gatherers struggling to survive in a hostile world into rulers of the planet.
In the process, a species of wild grass that was once confined to a small part of the Middle East now covers vast stretches of the Earth. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari has observed: “In the great plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres without encountering any other plant.”
Wheat now provides 20% of the calories consumed by humans every day, but its production is under threat. Thanks to human-induced global heating, our planet faces a future of increasingly severe heat waves, droughts and wildfires that could devastate harvests in future, triggering widespread famine in their wake.
But the crisis could be averted thanks to remarkable research now being undertaken by researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. They are working on a project to make wheat more resistant to heat and drought. Such efforts have proved to be extremely tricky but are set to be the subject of a new set of trials in a few weeks as part of a project in which varieties of wheat – created, in part, by gene-editing technology – will be planted in field trials in Spain.
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