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Published: 26 August 2013

Get real: agronomists and breeders should review agricultural science

John Passioura

How will agriculture adapt to a changing climate? It’s an important question and, as more governments start worrying about future food security, one that’s worth trying to answer.

Crop science: the way is open for laboratory scientists to embrace close collaborations with field scientists, agronomists and breeders.
Credit: Carl Davies/scienceimage

Many well-known scientific journals frequently publish papers that claim to predict global crop yields or offer guidance on how farmers can adapt. But most of these papers are written in an academic bubble, and this seriously undermines their usefulness.

The most recent of these papers has just been published in Nature Climate Change.

It claims its findings ‘reveal that the use of seasonal climatic forecasts to predict crop failures will be useful for monitoring global food production and will encourage the adaptation of food systems to climatic extremes’.

While the pathway to those findings is unfathomable to someone not deeply immersed in the arcane techniques of modelling chaotic systems such as the weather, its claims are wide open for debate.

It is a common characteristic of the authors of such papers that they do not ask potential users of their findings – agronomists, breeders, marketers – to comment on the claims. Reality therapy is not something they usually seek.

This comment applies not only in modelling, but also to most of the many papers in the experimental plant sciences that claim to be useful for improving food production.

What is to be gained from a new technique for predicting crop failures? The large financial industry based on grain futures relies on information about currently growing crops around the world. Good information is valuable to it. But does this recent paper improve this information?

To find out, the authors would have had to compare the usefulness of their model with currently used techniques of forecasting the yield. And one cannot tell from the paper if they have.

If there is no demonstrable improvement, why bother with the exercise? Is the paper a work in progress, an advance towards something that will eventually be demonstrably useful? If so, why is it not published in a more appropriate journal?

The second part of the paper’s claim to usefulness is that it ‘will encourage the adaptation of food systems to climatic extremes’. Who will do this adapting, exactly, and be encouraged by this paper?

First-rate breeders and agronomists are already hard at work solving problems of grain crops subject to volatile environments, not least in Australia. Is there anything that they would do differently if they read this paper? I would say not.

Our wheat breeders test their potential new cultivars in a wide range of environments across Australia, from the driest to the wettest parts of the wheat belt, sampling extremes of risk of frost damage and of heat damage.

Our agronomists keep making substantial improvements in farming systems that are substantially increasing yields per unit of rainfall.

There is really no serious basis for the claims of usefulness in this paper and the thousands of others that make similar vague claims of being agriculturally helpful. This is not a matter of fraud but of naivety, not only of the authors but of the institutions that support them. It highlights a serious problem with our system of peer review in agricultural research. It is a problem that can be readily solved.

Certainly reviews by peers in the given field remain essential. What is missing is additional review by people further along the value chain of agricultural R&D, the potential users. They are the ones who can check the promise of a given piece of work, because they are aware of the constraints and requirements of current practices and understanding in their own domains.

Involving them would be enormously beneficial. Their role would be much more than that of a filter. Just as importantly, they could provide guidance on what would make for substantial improvements in their own domains, including where the best opportunities may lie.

It is now common for our agronomists to work in tandem with designated farmer groups and their management consultants. Such collaborations are proving to be very effective.

The way is open for laboratory scientists to embrace similar close collaborations – not with farmer groups, for that would be a step too far, but with field scientists, the agronomists and the breeders.

Knowledge of what would potentially work in the field would then be available to them, thereby greatly enhancing the potential usefulness of their research.

John Passioura is an expert in the environmental physiology of plants, especially in relation to the productive use of water by crops growing in dry environments. He led the Crop Adaptation Program in CSIRO Plant Industry for many years, and later spent several years as a consultant with the Grains R&D Corporation working on processes in soil and plants that affect productivity of farms and the sustainability of farming systems. He is currently an Honorary Research Fellow with CSIRO Plant Industry, where he continues to work on improving the performance of dryland crops and the soil in which they grow. This article was first published in The Conversation.

Published: 15 December 2014

Pace of climate change will challenge reptiles and amphibians

Ectotherms – animals that regulate their body temperature through the external environment – may be resilient to some climate change impacts, but may not keep pace with the rapid rate of change, leading to potentially disastrous outcomes for biodiversity.

A tiger snake warms itself in the sun at Bibra lake, Western Australia.
A tiger snake warms itself in the sun at Bibra lake, Western Australia.
Credit: Flickr/Peter CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A study by researchers from the Universities of Sydney and Queensland points out that many animals can modify the function of their cells and organs to compensate for changes in the climate and have done so in the past. However, the current rapid rate of climate change will outpace animals' capacity for compensation (or acclimation), the study warns.

The research, just published in Nature Climate Change (Letters), was led by Professor Frank Seebacher from the University of Sydney, and Professor Craig Franklin and Associate Professor Craig White from the University of Queensland.

The researchers say that predicted that changes to temperature fluctuations as well as to overall temperature would require animals to function across a broader range of conditions.

This is a particularly difficult challenge for ectotherms, animals that rely on external sources of heat to control body temperature. Ectotherms make up more than 90 per cent of all animals.

The researchers studied 40 years of published data to assess how biological functions change in response to a sudden fluctuations in environmental temperatures.

They found that the physiological rates of ectothermic animals, such as heart rate, metabolism and locomotion, had increased already over the past 20 years with increasing average temperatures.

‘It is important that animals maintain the right balance between the large number of physiological functions, despite environmental fluctuations. An increase in temperature that leads to changed reaction rates can upset that balance and cause the decline of individuals and species,’ said Prof Seebacher.

‘For example, movement requires energy and oxygen to be delivered to muscles. However, if metabolism or the cardiovascular system can't cope with increased temperatures, animals can no longer move to forage, migrate or interact with each other.

‘The overall trend in the last 20 years has been to increased physiological rates, and we predict that this would continue to increase with increasing temperature.

‘Even if animals are able to maintain the balance of their physiological functions in a warmer climate, increased metabolism leads to increases in the food resources needed and could upset the balance in ecosystems, particularly if predator and prey populations respond very differently to the environmental temperature change.’

Source: University of Sydney

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