26 February 2014 - This story is in archive

There is a risk that severity of epidemics of some wheat diseases may increase within the next ten to twenty years due to the impacts of climate change according to a study by international researchers led by the University of Hertfordshire.

Predicting severity of disease on wheat crops

The researchers carried out a survey in China to establish a link between weather and the severity of epidemics of fusarium ear blight on the wheat crops. This weather-based model was then used to predict the impact on severity of the disease of future weather scenarios for the period from 2020 to 2050. 

Professor Bruce Fitt, professor of plant pathology at the University of Hertfordshire's School of Medical and Life Sciences, said: "There is considerable debate about the impact of climate change on crop production – and making sure that we have sufficient food to feed the ever-growing global population is key to our future food security."

One of the world's most important crops

Wheat, one of the world's most important crops for human food, is milled for use in bread, breakfast cereals, cakes, pizzas, confectionery, soups and many other foodstuffs.  Fusarium ear blight is a serious disease affecting wheat across many areas of the world. During severe epidemics, wheat crop losses can be as much as sixty per cent.  These losses can become larger as, under certain conditions, the fusarium pathogen produces toxic chemicals known as mycotoxins.  The levels of mycotoxins present in the grain may render it unsuitable for either human or animal consumption – the mycotoxin safe levels being controlled by legislation.

Professor Fitt continued: "We know that the weather plays a big part in the development of the disease on the wheat crops – the incidence of the disease is determined by temperature and the occurrence of wet weather at the flowering or anthesis of the wheat crops."

Greater incidence of fusarium ear blight on wheat crops

When the weather-based model developed at Rothamsted Research was used to predict how climate change may affect the wheat crops, it was predicted that wheat flowering dates will generally be earlier and the incidence of the ear blight disease on the wheat crops will substantially increase. 

The research suggests that climate change will increase the risk of serious ear blight epidemics on winter wheat in Central China by the middle of this century (2020-2050).   

Similar conclusions were reached about impacts of climate change on wheat in the UK, where climate change models are predicting warmer, wetter winters for the country.  This suggests that the UK too will suffer a greater incidence of fusarium ear blight on wheat crops – greatly affecting one of our biggest staple crops.

In a world where more than one billion people do not have enough to eat, and our future food security is threatened by climate change and an ever-growing population, it is essential to improve the control of crop diseases like fusarium ear blight around the globe.

The paper, "Climate change increases risk of fusarium ear blight on wheat in central China", is published on line in the journal Annals of Applied Biology (doi: 10.1111/aab.12107).  

The research was funded by the SAIN (Sustainable Agriculture Innovation Network) project (DC09-07), the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC; Centre for Bioenergy and Climate change ISPG) and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.