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Breeding Barley for a Changing Climate

By Emily Matzke
 
Climate change is a global issue. It affects our environment and our food supply.
 
Increasing temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and extreme weather events influence crop yields and where crops can live. These events limit the number of crops humans can use.
 
Cereal crops, like wheat and barley, are important to human diets. They provide starch, protein, and fiber, and can be used in livestock feed.
A mature barley field at a farm in southern Iceland
A mature barley field at a farm in southern Iceland.
 
But climate change has had a significant impact on cereal crops. Rising temperatures make it hard to grow these crops in their usual environments.
 
One way to compensate for yield losses related to heat stress is to move the production northward. Nevertheless, more frequent extreme weather events can negatively affect yield.
 
Knowing these global issues, Magnus Göransson and his team researched how different climate conditions impacted cereal crop growth. They observed how different day length and temperature impacted the maturity time and height in Nordic spring barley adapted to high latitudes in Iceland.
 
The team’s research was recently published in Crop Science, a journal of the Crop Science Society of America.
 
“It is thought that climate change will impact cereal crop production,” said Göransson. “Breeding crops to better fit local environments can help close the expected yield gap.”
Researchers grew different types of barley in a field trial
Researchers grew different types of barley in a field trial in Reykjavik, Iceland. 
 
The team used barley from their breeding program adapted to conditions found in Iceland. These plants had been selected to reach maturity earlier compared to similar barley varieties from other regions.
 
“Climate affects barley production in Iceland,” explains Göransson. “In the fall, it is very cool and we have lots of storms.”
 
“Unfortunately, farmers see high seed loss with these storms,” Göransson explains. “If we can produce a crop that is ready to harvest earlier in the year, it will help avoid these issues.”
 
Despite these challenges, barley is the most reliable cereal crop in higher latitudes. To have a successful crop in the future, the plants need to mature earlier, have good straw quality, and be resistant to diseases.
 
“We wanted to know that the plants we selected for early maturity did well in a controlled environment,” says Göransson. “We used four different growth chambers with different day lengths and temperatures to recreate the environment in Iceland and compare with other climate conditions.”
 
Growth chambers are rooms in greenhouses where researchers can carefully control the environment the plants live in.
 
They observed day lengths from 12 hours to 20 hours, and temperatures of 50 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. From these trials, they determined the effect on flowering time, time to maturity, and height of the new barley plants.
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