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Field Notes: Looking inside plants for answers to a changing climate

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The 2013 Water for Food Conference featured speakers from around the globe discussing the impact of climate change on agriculture. Photo by Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.

One prediction about climate change that seems undeniable is that the weather will become more unpredictable. Farmers have felt this firsthand in recent years watching massive floods wash away farmland and devastating drought dry up crops.

How to deal with climate extremes was the focus of the recent Water for Food Conference hosted by the University of Nebraska Lincoln. The keyword among the different panels and speakers was “resilience.” Heidi Cullen, a climatologist at research website Climate Central, seemed to sum it up when she described resilience as managing what you can’t avoid while avoiding what you can’t manage.

At the conference I interviewed Sally Mackenzie, a plant geneticist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who is researching a totally new way to breed crops that may be able to withstand new weather extremes. It’s called epigenetics. Rather than introduce new genes into a plant, epigenetics has to do with altering the genes a plant already possesses. Mackenzie told me it mimics a form of plant memory that occurs naturally.

"We know that if a plant has seen drought or, say,  high light or some kind of stress early in its life the plant will be pre-adapted that second time to that stress even though it’s seeing that stress after some growth period. That memory, whether within a lifetime or trans-generationally, is thought to be epigenetic.

Mackenzie’s team of researchers is studying ways to harness that natural process. They’ve found that simply turning one protein “on” or “off” can result in dramatic changes in a plant that is genetically identical to what came before. Epigenetics may help unlock new advances in areas like crop yield and drought tolerance that would leapfrog gains found through traditional plant breeding.

I asked Mackenzie how those crops will be received if they eventually reach the food supply. Transgenic crops like Roundup Ready soybeans, in which a new gene has been inserted, have faced enormous criticism. Mackenzie said she does not believe epigenetically modified crops should face the same scrutiny from consumers or regulators.

"At some point we have to be realistic about what we face. It’s not just our country but our world really faces a crisis here in how our scientific community and our agricultural community is going to keep pace with the changes in our climate in order to be able to feed the world. As well as keep pace with population growth. I mean,  you can’t tie all of our hands.

Right now epigenetics are still being studied in laboratories and test plots. But Mackenzie believes the technology will eventually become an important tool to help farmers manage the unpredictable effects of climate change on agriculture.