University of Haifa study raises fears for future food crops.
By Zafrir Rinat

Global warming is causing genetic changes in wild cereal grains in Israel that could endanger food production, a recent study by University of Haifa scientists reveals.

Wild cereal progenitors provide the genetic basis for improving cultivated varieties of wheat and barley.
wheat, moshav, farm

Jini Wheat harvest on Moshav Merhavia. Farmers rely on wild grains to improve cultivated varieties of wheat and barley.
Photo by: File photo: Haggai Aharon

The study, which will be published this week in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined changes to 10 wild emmer wheat populations and 10 wild barley populations from different climates and habitats across Israel, from the Negev in the south to Mount Hermon in the north. They were sampled in 1980, in 2008 and in 2009.

The team, headed by Prof. Eviatar Nevo from the university’s Institute of Evolution, grew samples it collected in an experimental greenhouse.

One finding was that the flowering time for all 20 populations was significantly reduced between 1980 and 2008, by an average of about 10 days.

Nevo believes the earlier flowering is an environmental adaptation in response to increasingly earlier and warmer springs.

While earlier flowering may be a positive and useful adaption to global warming, other findings were less encouraging: The study found a significant reduction in genetic diversity of the plants in 2008, compared to 1980, which points to an erosion in the samples’ ability to respond to changes in the environment, including climate change.

The changes in the emmer wheat were found to be much greater than changes in the barley, which is more drought-resistant than wheat.

On the positive side, the researchers say that in some of the plants – those in areas with relatively plentiful rainfall – they also found genetic changes that attest to an ability to adjust to climate changes.

Wheat and barley in Israel’s northern areas are known to have genetic traits that help make them resistant to drought and disease.

The adaptive mechanisms of the plants in Israel are present also in other areas of the Fertile Crescent, the article states. According to the authors, who also included Avigdor Beiles, Mordechai Tavasi and Souad Khalifa, wild plant populations that showed positive genetic changes that allowed them to adapt better to climate change can be a basis for the study of development of drought-resistant strains.

Global warming, which is also taking place in Israel, is the only variable that could have caused such changes in populations of wild wheat and barley in such disparate areas of Israel, Nevo said, noting that samples were examined from plants growing hundreds of kilometers apart.

The researchers based their study, among other things, on climate research in Israel over the past few decades.

But research published by the Israel Meteorological Service indicates that Israel did not undergone extensive changes in temperatures or rainfall in recent years.

Nevo said the changes his team found in the genetic makeup of the wild cereal species they studied could affect the ability to improve food production worldwide, because wild strains are the main source for plants that are resistant to disease and other environmental hazards.

Wheat and barley, which are the nutritional foundation for people and animals throughout the world, developed from wild strains that originated in the Middle East, in the Fertile Crescent. Scholars believe success in cultivating these varieties are one of the reasons that humans developed agriculture and community life for the first time in the Middle East and nearby regions.

According to Nevo, concern for wild strains of wheat and barley cannot be left for the distant future. “We have a large gene bank and we are constantly trying to find ways to upgrade cultivars,” he said. “The findings of the current research show that there is a need for much more massive action to allow wild strains to flourish in nature as well,” Nevo said.