FEATURE – Could "resurrection" crops survive drought and feed a hungry planet?
Scientist hopes that by putting resurrection plants’ survival skills into crops, the world’s population could be better fed CAPE TOWN, March 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Could harnessing the power of "resurrection plants" – with the ability to survive severe water shortages for years – hold the secret to feeding a hungry planet?
Jill Farrant, a biology professor at Cape Town University, hopes that by putting resurrection plants’ survival skills into crops, making them drought-tolerant, the world’s population could be better fed.
"Give (the plants) water, and they are fully active within 24 to 48 hours," Farrant told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at her office.
In Southern Africa, more than 21 million people need emergency assistance due to a food crisis after the region’s worst drought in 35 years and an infestation of the crop-damaging fall armyworm.
"Since all crops produce dry seeds, this implies that the genetic mechanisms for desiccation tolerance exist in crops," said Farrant.
By modifying the existing gene composition, Farrant and her team could potentially produce drought-tolerant crops.
Chikelu Mba of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Rome was hesitant to evaluate the potential of such technologies before seeing evidence-based testing and the impact of modified crops on the environment.
Small farmers growing maize – a crop that can produce bumper harvests but is susceptible to poor rainfall – may also be persuaded to switch to unmodified crops that are simply better able to resist drought, like beans, the FAO has said.
"Five years, and I’ll give you a resurrection plant that can provide crops," she said, adding that testing the drought-resistant crops might take a further five years.
"Then it is food on your plate, but it might be too long – people need food now."