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News spotlight: Climate change is killing pollen

© Trond Larsen

Pollen. A scourge for allergy sufferers, it is critical for life, fertilizing every seed, grain and fruit that feeds the world.

Now, rising temperatures are putting the pollen from essential crops — including tomatoes, canola and rice — at risk, reports Carolyn Beans for Grist

According to researchers, extended heat waves can break down proteins that are critical for the development of pollen. And no pollen means no crops. 

“There is basically no return,” Jenna Walters, a botanist, told Grist. “[Heat] exposure for just four hours is enough to lead to permanent damage.”

Scientists are scrambling to help farms suffering pollen decline. Techniques include switching to more heat-tolerant crops like beans and chickpeas, creating machines that spread lab-grown pollen; and even developing super-hardy mutant tomatoes.

The tomatoes “appear to be extra good at dealing with high-temperature stress,” said Gloria Muday, a researcher who helped create the crops using gene-editing technology. Muday’s team is now helping identify genes that could help plant pollen handle higher temperatures, and they eventually hope to help farmers incorporate these genes into new, more resilient crops.

While climate change is hurting crops in some regions, in others it’s creating unprecedented opportunities for agricultural expansion. A 2020 study by Conservation International experts found that in the near future, global heating will make it possible to grow crops in places that were once too cold or inhospitable (think fields of corn in Siberia). 

That’s not necessarily a good thing, according to Lee Hannah, a senior scientist at Conservation International and the lead author of the study. 

“Boreal areas in Russia and Canada are going to be increasingly suitable for agriculture this century and, while that has big food production potential, it also has some serious environmental consequences,” Hannah said in a 2020 interview. 

One of those consequences is the release of massive amounts of carbon, particularly in Russia and Canada. In these countries, frozen soil called permafrost locks away centuries’ old stores of carbon, which could be released if the soil thaws and is used for agriculture. 

Rather than trying to develop farms across these new agricultural frontiers, Hannah explained, “the intelligent play is to figure out what areas could be really high-producing agricultural areas that don’t sit on high-carbon soils.”

“We need to leave [carbon rich areas] alone and reduce the amount of carbon that gets emitted from them, because we don’t want to have a runaway climate problem.” 

Read the full article in Grist here.

Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: A school of taʻape(© Brian D. Greene)