Ancient seeds in Mexico help fight warming effects

Fri Sep 17, 2010 11:04am EDT
 
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By Mica Rosenberg

EL BATAN, Mexico (Reuters) - More than 500 years after Spanish priests brought wheat seeds to Mexico to make wafers for the Catholic Mass, those seeds may bring a new kind of salvation to farmers hit by global warming.

Scientists working in the farming hills outside Mexico City found the ancient wheat varieties have particular drought- and heat-resistant traits, like longer roots that suck up water and a capacity to store more nutrients in their stalks.

They are crossing the plants with other strains developed at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in El Batan to grow types of wheat that can fight off the ill effects of rising temperatures around the world.

"It's like putting money in the bank to use, in this case, for a not rainy day," scientist Matthew Reynolds said of the resilient Mexican wheats his team collected.

Seed breeders say they are the first line of defense protecting farmers from climate change, widely expected to heat the planet between 1 and 3 degrees over the next 50 years.

Intensified drought, together with more intense and unpredictable rainfall, could hit crop yields and bring food shortages and spikes in commodity prices.

In Mexico, small farmers are grappling with the effects of unfavorable weather scientists say is exacerbated by climate change. Last year the country saw the lowest rainfall in 68 years and this year an active hurricane season battered corn-growing areas near the U.S. border.

Corn farmer Cesar Longoria, 56, said his family's harvest dropped by 30 percent in the 2009 drought, and then more than half of his fields in Reynosa were destroyed by floods in July when Hurricane Alex hammered northern Mexico.   Continued...