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'Confused' Crops could Pose Complications for Future of Farming

22 May 2012

UK - The agriculture industry could be forced to undergo sweeping changes because warmer winters could be confusing their crops, scientists have warned.

It follows a detailed study showing hundreds of plant species, that appear to not be affected by warmer Spring temperatures, are in fact responding as much to warmer winters and getting ‘messed up’ in the process.

For years, scientists have accepted that certain species are flowering earlier each year due to changes in climatic conditions, but many – varying around 30 per cent depending on the region – appeared not to be affected and had been classed as stable.

Now a group of researchers have called this theory into question, saying the apparently stable species are, in fact, unquestionably feeling the effects of rising temperatures throughout the year. They say further research is needed to figure out what all this means, not only for wild plants, but for the future of farming.

Nobel Prize winning scientist Professor Camille Parmesan, NMA Chair in Public Understanding of Oceans and Human Health within Plymouth University's Marine Institute, was part of the research team alongside colleagues from North American universities and NASA’s Goddard Institute.

Professor Parmesan said: "For years, horticultural and farming experts have believed they can either use traditional adaptation methods or genetic manipulation to negate the effects of climate change. But our studies show the species they rely on – such as many fruit and nut trees – could in fact be getting really messed up by rising temperatures. Farmers may have had several bad years with their crops, but blamed it on other factors, and we feel more research is needed to examine where and when species that need cold winters should be planted to ensure the industry remains active."

Many of the species that have not appeared to be altering their spring timing in recent years need cold winters to 'tell' them when to become dormant and when to ‘wake up’ in spring. With winters getting warmer, these species appear to be 'waiting' for their cold cue, which can end up delaying their normal responses to the arrival of spring. The end result is species that show no change, or even a delay, in spring budding, leafing or blooming, in apparent contradiction with warming spring temperatures.

This new study resolves that contradiction for many species, indicating about two-thirds of 'stable' species are, in fact, sensitive to warmer springs, but even moreso to warmer winters, with the end result being a confusion in timing of leafing, budding or blooming.

To reach their conclusions, Professor Parmesan and two colleagues – Dr Benjamin Cook from NASA and Columbia University, and Dr Elizabeth Wolkovich from the University of British Columbia – spent months analysing two detailed sets of data recording the flowering trends of almost 500 species.

They are now looking for their findings to be built on because of the huge implications they feel it could have for the future of agriculture.

Professor Parmesan said: "I am looking to open dialogue with agricultural research groups and policy makers because while crops that require cold winters may appear to be flowering at their normal time, they may actually be losing out by not starting growth earlier in spring in concert with warmer spring temperatures. It would be interesting to do this analysis on cold-adapted crops that have had some bad yields in recent (warm) years, and see if the same explanation holds for crops as we found for wild plants."

TheCropSite News Desk

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