Guest essay by Eric Worrall
According to the Australian CSIRO, “The lines will cross” in 20 years, heralding the end of biotechnology’s ability to improve wheat yields.
Climate change to blame for flatlining wheat yield gains: CSIRO
By Anna Vidot
Updated Thu at 11:59am
Australia’s wheat productivity has flatlined as a direct result of climate change, according to CSIRO research.
While 2016 set a new national wheat harvest record, the national science organisation’s findings indicate that result masks a more troubling long-term trend.
While Australian wheat yields tripled between 1900 and 1990, growth stagnated over the following 25 years.
Zvi Hochman, a senior research scientist with CSIRO Agriculture and Food said the team considered whether other factors could have shared the blame, such as investment in research and development (R&D), changing patterns of land use, and soil fertility.
But those could all be ruled out: investment in grains R&D was stable, changing land-use patterns should have favoured wheat production, and soil management improved as farmers adopted new techniques such as zero-till.
“Climate variability can make it look as if there is no trend, just one year’s good and one year’s bad, but we’ve statistically analysed the trend that we observed,” Dr Hochman said.
“The chance of that just being variable climate without the underlying factor [of climate change] is less than one in 100 billion.”
“If we assume the same trend continues, then there’s a point at which the two lines cross each other – in about 20 years’ time – and by then we will start to see declining yields.
The biggest problem with the climate argument is Australia is not currently taking best advantage of available technology. While much of the rest of the world has embraced genetic modification to improve yields and resistance to pests, and reduce pesticide use, scare campaigns have kept Australia largely GM free, with the exception of small scale GM cotton and canola crops.
Investment in crop technology might be holding steady, but rejecting GM as an option effectively sabotages much of the value of that investment.
Consider the following study in PLOS One, about the benefits of GM;
On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.
It is conceivable that Australia might maintain its politically motivated opposition to modern biotech for the next 20 years, in which yield gains might stagnate. But blaming any stagnation on climate is ridiculous. Embracing GM would provide an immediate realisable yield improvement of up to 22%, followed by whatever gains the next 20 years of GM research delivers.