To produce climate-resilient food crops or to use existing ones?

A nice stand of the spineless (edible) Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis in Staoueli (Algiers) – Photo credit WVC 2007

Drought-tolerant or climate resilient plants to combat desertification

by Prof. Dr. Willem VAN COTTHEM – University of Ghent (Belgium)

I have been reading a very interesting publication at IRINNEWS

entitled AFRICA: Finding the food crops of the future

Climate change could make that classical staple foods can’t be grown anymore in the climatic zones of today.  People would need to grow other crops. In my own country Belgium, which would be the food crops of the future? What kind of options for continued food security will we have?  Do we need scientists to do years of research work on climate models linked to agriculture and horticulture to determine which will be the crop yields in the future?  Or can we use existing climate-resilient crops in a ‘new’ environment created by the impact of climatic changes on the existing vegetation?

Some scientists believe that intensive research work is needed to produce these ‘new’ varieties of food crops, e.g. drought-resistant ones. Models are already used and still perfected. Some believe that experimenting with these models, or with genetic modification of existing food crops, ‘will save the time that would have been spent on field trials and help speed up the agricultural research cycle’ (see Jennifer OLSON in the article mentioned above). Therefore, highly estimated institutions provide extremely important research grants to encourage such ‘innovative solutions’.

I fully agree with Jennifer OLSON that ‘bioscience can improve crop resilience to climate change, or perhaps improve the shelf-life of a food product’, but I want to express my serious doubts about the necessity to spend billions of dollars on developing ‘new’ varieties of climate-resilient crops, when in nature one finds a considerable number of species and varieties of plant species that can successfully be introduced in regions or countries affected by climate change, e.g. drought-stricken areas.

It suffices to accept that under the new conditions these drought-resistant plants, having a high nutritional value for men or livestock, can be shipped as seeds from elsewhere to become the ‘new’ staple food.

If we can’t grow maize (corn) anymore, but another, less water-consuming cereal, why should we stay hungry?  If our region would become not adapted to olives, oranges, almonds, papayas, bananas etc., why would we hesitate to grow other already existing fruits from other climatic zones?

It is my most sincere conviction that Africans can be perfectly happy with food crops now growing in Asia or South-America and vice-versa.  I also believe that we should pay more attention (do some rather inexpensive research work) on opportunities to introduce Asian or South American food crops in the African drylands or the other way around.

Do we need to fear invasive species? Let someone explain first to us what would be an ‘invasive’ food crop.  Would it become a noxious weed?  Would we have to destroy it or eat it?

I leave that discussion open for now, trusting in the fact that if the Brazilians in their ‘Nord-Este Province’ have enormous plantations of the spineless prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis with edible fruits and green pads that can be eaten or used as fodder, etc.), my good friends in the Sahelian countries or even in the Sahara desert would be bewildered if they could get a good opportunity to set up such plantations in their drylands.  Invasive species?  No way: because the spiny prickly pear grows already all over that part of the world.  Too expensive?  No way: because it suffices to put a cactus pad in the dry soil to see it budding.

As a scientist, I have no hard feelings against enormous grants given to research work.  But accepting that research work must go on, I can’t stop dreaming of extremely inexpensive research work in the field itself to disperse ‘all good things’ that Mother Earth is offering us today.

Every time I am reading about the fantastic qualities of one or another plant species or a variety, I am dreaming about the possibility to use seeds or parts of that plant to improve the living conditions of all the people who don’t have the chance to profit from this exquisite species. This way, my action ‘Seeds for Food’ was born (see <;). Whenever you have a chance to let a melon grow in the drylands, go out there and look at a child’s eyes when it bites for the first time in such a juicy fruit.

Why would we hesitate to send all the seeds of the melons we consume to climate zones where they can grow?  Why don’t we offer those rural people, or even the people in cities or towns in the drylands, a chance to grow avocado trees (Persea americana), tomato trees (Cyphomandra betacea), cherimoyas, spekboom or elephant bush (Portulacaria afra), pitayas or dragonfruits (Hylocereus undatus), … you name it !

Knowing that all these ‘goodies’ are already there, we do not have to wait for the results of years of research work.  We only have to take the decision to spread the ‘goodies’ around, of course in a well-organized way, e.g. as seeds.  That’s what ‘organizations’ are set up for.

Remember that once we imported potatoes, tomatoes, tulips and hundreds of exotic species in Europe without fearing that they could become ‘invasive species’.  Will we create this fear for exotic food crops today ?

To produce climate-resilient food crops on the long-term or to use existing ones on the short-term, for me it is no question anymore.


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.