Researchers Say Africa Needs "Genetic Prospectors"

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Over the next 50 years, the climates of most African nations will change enough that their traditional crops will no longer be able to grow. But there is a solution — a new type of explorer called a genetic prospector.

Some African nations, like Ethiopia, will have little to worry about. Although a new report published today in Global Environmental Change says the country's average temperature will go up by several degrees over the next half century, Ethiopia already grows crops that can withstand that kind of heat. But other nations, like Chad, will get hot enough that the local strain of maize will no longer grow.

And this situaiton will escalate very quickly. New Scientist reports:

[The researchers] found that farmers in Africa will face average temperatures outside the current range of experience in their locality in 42% of years by 2025 – and 97% by 2075. Since temperature strongly affects crop yields, farmers will need to find new varieties adapted to these higher temperatures, Burke says. Future rainfall showed more overlap with current conditions, largely because rainfall already varies more from year to year.


But scientists emphasize that this situation is not catastrophic. There are plenty of other nations where maize and other local crops are grown in higher temperatures. And that's where this idea of the "genetic prospector" comes in. This would be a person who would go out in the field, to warmer crop-growing nations like Cameroon or Nigeria, and find strains of maize that are heat-resistant. Or at least, resistant to the kinds of temperatures Chad can expect as early as 2025.

The problem, as research report author Marshall Burke explains, is that few of these nations have agreements about sharing crop strains or collaborating on agricultural science projects. There isn't much knowledge-sharing, and therefore a nation like Chad may find its people starving in bad crop seasons. But genetic prospectors, who could go out and find replacement strains, could stop the starvation cycle and food riots before they start. (Already, some African nations like Somalia have had food riots when crops failed last year.)

Given the lack of coordination between the agricultural scientists and farmers of affected nations, I think "genetic prospector" may be too hopeful of a term. I think what we're likely to see are genetic poachers, desperate people who sneak into neighboring ecologies in search of climates that match their own - and crops that thrive there.


This sounds to me like the plot for a perfect futuristic action movie: His family's crops have failed. There is nothing left for our brave young man from Chad to do but become a genetic poacher in Nigeria. Unfortunately, Nigeria wants to closely guard its heat-friendly crops, and sell their genetic profiles only to the richest agribusinesses. This becomes an even more dire situation when you consider how many of those agribusinesses are owned by foreign nations who take a huge cut of every harvest. Will our brave Chadian lad survive to bring the genetic material home?

Via New Scientist and Global Environmental Change

Image of a village in Chad via Wunderground.