Interdisciplinary Research on Introducing Heat-Tolerant Wheat to Bolster Food Security

Researchers

Principal Investigator
Postdoctoral scholar
Senior Fellow
  • Professor, Earth System Science
  • William Wrigley Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

The project is supported under the NSF Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability Fellows (SEES Fellows) program, with the goal of helping to enable discoveries needed to inform actions that lead to environmental, energy and societal sustainability while creating the necessary workforce to address these challenges. Sustainability science is an emerging field that addresses the challenges of meeting human needs without harm to the environment, and without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. A strong scientific workforce requires individuals educated and trained in interdisciplinary research and thinking, especially in the area of sustainability science. With the SEES Fellowship support, this project will enable a promising early career researcher to establish herself in an independent research career related to sustainability. This project focuses on food sustainability and security on a global scale. The partnerships built into this project will give the Fellow significant inter-disciplinary training (adding the components of randomized controlled trials and crop modeling) beyond the scope of her current expertise. This is particularly important since her goal is to become a sustainability scientist who combines methods and tools from the natural and social sciences to understand how humans are impacted by and adapt to environmental change. Specifically, the Fellow will participate in an interdisciplinary institutes (Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford, and Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley). Also, at Stanford University, the Fellow will gain teaching and mentoring experience.

Climate change is predicted to negatively impact agricultural communities and food security across the globe, with models estimating up to a 40% reduction in the yield of some crops by the end of the century. This is particularly problematic for wheat, which is a major staple crop (providing 20% of daily calories) that is already facing declining yields due to warming temperatures. Previous studies have shown that autonomous adaptation strategies (e.g. increasing irrigation, shifting planting date) are not enough to mitigate the negative impacts of warming, and planned adaptation strategies that introduce heat-tolerant wheat varieties are needed to sustainably bolster yields and food security in the face of climate change. Interdisciplinary research is necessary to (1) identify the most effective ways to introduce these new technologies to vulnerable communities, and (2) assess whether the predicted yield benefits of these crops are realized in the field where farmers may deviate from ideal management practices. This study uses randomized controlled trials from development economics to evaluate introduction strategies, remote sensing to quantify if new heat-tolerant wheat varieties provide yield benefits in the field, and process-based crop models to assess whether these new varieties provide predicted yield benefits in future warming scenarios. Understanding the effectiveness of information transfer is particularly important for heat-tolerant crops because, unlike high-yielding varieties introduced during the Green Revolution, heat-tolerant crops may not provide immediate benefits and only produce higher yields in unseasonably warm years. Thus, the adoption and diffusion of this technology may depend purely on whether farmers trust and receive accurate information about possible future benefits. This study is one of the first to examine the most effective ways to introduce new crops that mitigate against climate variability and future climate risk, which is necessary to sustainably enhance food security in the face of climate change.