Breeding – the key technology for climate-proof agriculture

date published 15.10.2018

2018 so far should have convinced even the most committed climate-sceptic: Climate change is happening and the development is even more dramatic than we have ever imagined it to be.

While mean temperatures in Austria in the first half of the year were above average everywhere, the levels of precipitation differed extremely according to the regions.

The South of Austria experienced dramatically increased precipitation while the North suffered persistent dry periods.

This scenario was unexpected since conventional climate models assume that the South is more likely to suffer drought stress.

On average, mean temperatures in the first half of 2018 were around 1.5 °C above the long-term average, with the ‘hot-spots’ of this development located in the Upper Austrian Innviertel and Hausruckviertel regions.

A small area in the northern part of the Lower Austrian Weinviertel region was the driest region – precipitation in the first half year attained only 50 % of the normal values there. The North of Upper Austria, parts of the Lower Austrian Waldviertel and Weinviertel regions registered 60 – 75 % of the normal precipitation even though precipitation in the second half of June paints a slightly better picture than it was in reality. Up to twice the normal precipitation volumes were observed in Austria’s southern regions (parts of Styria, Carinthia and Eastern Tyrol).


Conditions getting harder – change coming faster

Agriculture will have to prepare for natural production conditions becoming increasingly more difficult. This development will hit the regions to a different degree. In traditionally dry regions, such precipitation deficits of 50 % may threaten the mere existence of entire farms. Since agriculture will not be able to stop climate change, it will have to develop adaptation strategies.


Plant breeding as the KEY technology

Varieties fit for the new conditions will play a key role in this adaptation process. Plant breeding in general and the selection of new varieties in particular is already taking place under these new conditions, a continuous adaptation is thus already underway. In certain respects, climate change is a Darwinian process following the motto ‘Survival of the fittest’.

Breeders can regulate this by relocating their selection tests to regions with a high climatic stress.

New breeding technologies could also play an important role by allowing better and more detailed information about the characteristics of breeding results.

This information should also be considered in the discussion about new breeding technologies. It sometimes appears that these discussions revolve around very abstract risks. We should however be aware of the fact that we cannot expect miracles in the breeding process for drought resistance. There will be varieties which are slightly better adapted – be it by better root growth or faster youth development – i.e. with regard to rather indirect parameters. The specific water consumption however is intrinsic to a variety and can thus not really be influenced.


Climate-proof breeds mean resistant breeds

Another challenge will consist in breeding varieties which are resistant against diseases. The importance of resistance breeding lies in the fact that the possibilities of chemical plant protection may be more limited in the future. We are running out of new active agents, not least because registration costs have attained vertiginous heights. And regarding the continuous reappraisal of active agents at EU level, we have to prepare for a shrinking range of active agents.

Plant breeding can be one of the ways out of this dilemma and thus a key to future success in crop farming.


Regional breeds in demand

The seeds and plant protection business has seen some mega-mergers lately which are resulting and have resulted in some clearly dominant undertakings. These companies act and think globally and are thus focusing primarily on global crops and solutions. The assertion of GMO or the insistence on hybrid technology are typical developments which create a massive dependency of crop farmers.

Regional breeders as they are still present in Central Europe continue to focus on the requirements and wishes of their regional environment. They work with crops which may be far from global importance but play an important role at a regional level.

Today, people attach great importance to the concept of ‘regionality’: Regionality will also be needed when it comes to finding solutions and tackling the problems caused by climate change or more generally speaking to meeting the challenges in crop farming.

That also means that agriculture must be aware of the importance of regionally rooted breeding. The work and efforts breeders deploy must become more visible – so as to show that plant breeding constitutes the basis of the whole agricultural sector.


Soy beans – a positive example

Soy beans can illustrate how quickly and successfully breeders can react. The success of this crop in recent years is owed to a great extent to the continuous improvement of the varieties. The Austrian list of varieties boasts about 70 different soy bean varieties, the majority of which was registered only after 2010 which means that for soy beans we rely on a very innovative and modern range of varieties, well adapted to the current situation and conditions. Everybody should know that breeding is hard and intensive work – particularly as far as workforce and costs are concerned. And this work of the breeders can only be refinanced via seed sales.


The future has begun already

Agriculture will and must adapt to the changing climate. Extreme weather conditions will become more frequent and the production conditions will get harder. The entire adaptation process to climate change consists of individual elements. Insurance against a diversity of climatic stress factors is one instrument, which has been implemented quite successfully in Austria. Plant breeders will play a decisive role in facing and potentially mastering the challenges ahead. At our breeding stations we have been actively working on solutions for the future. However, we must all be aware of the fact, that plant breeding is a long-term project: It still takes 7 to 15 years from the first cross-breeding at the breeding station to the registration of a new variety. Not even the new breeding technologies will be able to significantly shorten this process.


Christian Krumphuber, Director of crop farming at the Upper Austrian Chamber of Agriculture