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How Weeds Could Help Feed Billions in a Warming World

Summary posted by Meridian on 6/9/2014

Source: Yale Environment 360 (5 Jun 2014)

Author(s): Lisa Palmer

Weeds are one of the largest single limitations to global crop yield, yet they also have traits that are useful to plant growth. Plant breeders and plant physiologists are studying how these traits could improve productivity in cultivated crop varieties. Such cross breeding could play an important role in boosting harvests in a warming world. Wild lines of important staple crops such as wheat, oats and rice – weeds – have genetic characteristics that may be useful in adapting their domesticated cousins to an uncertain future. Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, studies weeds in food production and human health. Ziska works with the weed red rice, which looks like cultivated rice, but once it gets in a field, it becomes a fierce competitor, and can cut a farmer’s yield by 80 percent. Although it is edible, it is almost impossible to harvest as the seeds shatter when they hit the ground. According to Ziska, the goal is to transfer red rice’s hardy traits into the more commonly cultivated rice crops. The world’s population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, and the demand for rice and other cereals is expected to rise by 14 percent per decade. Climate change is likely to cut into some of those crop yields – high temperatures stress rice plants, limit growth and shorten growing seasons; increasing carbon dioxide causes weeds to outpace crop growth. Ziska says weeds could be a key part of the solution. “The feral cousins of today’s crops may allow us to adapt to meet food security needs,” he says. “This paradox of weeds I find fascinating. Let’s turn lemons into lemonade.”

The original article may still be available at http://e360.yale.edu/feature/how_weeds_could_help_feed_billions_in_a_warming_world/2772/

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