Drought-proof wheat

Monday 13th Jun 2011 by theWeather Club

A £7 million grant to aid the development of drought-resistant wheat has been awarded to two of East England's leading agricultural research centres, as farmers across the region struggle to cope with what has been driest year since 1893.

The project is being lead by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge and the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park, is being funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and is the first of its kind for 20 years. News of its launch comes as rainfall figures for the east suggest the drought, which began in March, has left the area with almost ten times less rain than it would normally have at this time – despite the torrential downpours seen in some parts of the country over the weekend.

Their first move, researchers say, will be to study the wild wheat that grows in the Middle East's fertile crescent: a dry, arid area where the crop we know as wheat first originated over 10,000 years ago.

"The east is dry traditionally and it has now become the bread basket of Great Britain so addressing a difficult climate is important," Dr Lydia Smith from the NIAB told the BBC. "What we're hoping is that we can find some of the genes from these wild relatives in the Middle East and bring them into the varieties we grow at the moment."

If successful the resulting crops will deal with low water supplies far better than the crops farmers are currently trying to grow – something that could prove critical should climate change result in increasingly dry summers in the future. Nevertheless any possible rewards are a long way off. In the meantime farmers in the east are predicting crop yields to fall by up to 50% thanks to May's devastating shortage of rainfall.