EL BATAN, MEXICO – 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, including 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 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 cause average global temperatures to rise between 1 and 3 degrees over the next 50 years. As a result, intensified drought, together with more intense and unpredictable rainfall, could hit crop yields and lead to food shortages and spikes in commodity prices.
Kaua‘i now imports approximately 90% of its daily food. This situation renders us vulnerable to interruptions in shipping, rising fuel costs and an increasing scarcity of certain foods in the face of rising world population. Some experts claim that the demand for food has already exceeded the supply. These conditions invite predictions of serious food shortages for our island at the same time that profits from our food expenditures are going to off-island suppliers rather than strengthening our local economy.
On the average the entire State only produces somewhere between 4.4 to 5.8 percent of our food supply. Specialists at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agricultural have pointed out that if we doubled our production of local food we would be avoiding $120 million in imports and creating more than 3,000 jobs. Farm related business income would increase, they predict, by about $64 million, and of course, other economic benefits would occur. Similar estimates regarding the benefits of increasing local food production have been suggested by Governor Lingle and also by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.