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February 28, 2010

Climate change: What will we be able to grow in another 40 years?

Temperatures seem set to soar to perilously high levels because of climate change. In another 40 years, would maize still be the staple food in Kenya, already hit by five failed rainy seasons? If not, what could people grow and eat? And if you could grow maize, how much water and fertilizer would it need?
If you live in the remote semi-arid Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda - beset by 14 droughts in 25 years - you might also want to know what your options are for continued food security.

For the first time, a customized regional climate model linked to crop growing and water models, run on a supercomputer at Michigan State University (MSU), will help provide crop breeders in three East African countries - Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania - with detailed answers on crop yields.

Many research institutions have been working on models to predict the impact of climate change on food production in Africa, but in a few months the MSU model will help scientists and breeders to zoom in at a regional level on the possible impact of climate change on a wide variety of crops in these countries.

The research could help produce climate-resilient varieties of food crops, said Jennifer Olson, lead researcher and associate professor at MSU's College of Communication Arts and Sciences.

"East Africa is already experiencing the impact of climate change - food crops are experiencing extreme water stress," she commented. People living in Kenya's highlands, who have traditionally grown tea and coffee, have begun experimenting with maize and beans as the climate has grown warmer.

Work on the model began 10 years ago with the recording of relevant data, such as the impact of nutrients on a certain food crop, or the impact of water stress on another, which were subsequently fed into the model. "The model is still being perfected," said Olson.

The model can experiment with the impact of climate change, such as high temperature and water stress on a certain crop variety, saving the time that would have been spent on field trials, "which will help speed up the agricultural research cycle", she noted.

The researchers intend to launch the model at a workshop in June. Concern about increasing food insecurity in East Africa has prompted two institutions to set up a research grants to encourage innovative solutions.

The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), based in South Africa, and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Nairobi, Kenya, announced a US$10.67 million grant from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to support the establishment of a multidisciplinary competitive funding mechanism for biosciences in Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

ILRI's Bruce Scott said they would be looking for innovative solutions using bioscience to improve crop resilience to climate change, or perhaps to improve the shelf-life of a food product.


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