A global search has begun for food crops with traits that are able to withstand changes to the climate.The project, co-ordinated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, is searching national seed banks for “climate proof” varieties, including maize and rice. The team will screen seeds for natural resistance to extreme events, such as floods, droughts or temperature swings. They hope the strains will help protect food production from the impacts of climate change. The $ 1.5 million scheme will provide grants for projects that will screen developing nations’ seed collections.

The trust says a lack of readily available and accurate material severely hinders plant breeders’ efforts to identify material that can be used to develop crop varieties that will cope with future conditions. “Our crops must produce more food, on the same amount of land, with less water, and more expensive energy,” explained the trust’s executive director, Cary Fowler, “There is no possible scenario in which we can continue to grow food we require without crop diversity.”

The gene hunt is the latest stage in the organization’s ongoing process of conserving the diversity of the world’s food crops. Over the past few years, it has convened a series of meetings that brought together leading experts for each of the main food crops, such as wheat, rice, lentils and maize. Each meeting was set the task of identifying the best conservation strategy for each of the crops. “The experts have, among other things, helped us identify which are the most important seed collections in terms of genetic diversity,” Fowler said. “This has provided us with the scientific foundation for almost everything else we do.” The information has helped the trust, which is also responsible for the “Doomsday seed vault” in the Arctic, pinpoint the exact characteristics needed to ensure that crops have the best chance of thriving in the future. Mr Fowler said one example was whether a plant displayed a good degree of heat resistance during its flowering period. This was a time when a plant would be experiencing increased stress, he said, yet very little data had been gathered on this part of the organisms’ lifecycles.

Over the next 12-24 months, the project’s researchers hope to build up a comprehensive profile of the various “climate-proof” traits and in which crops they are found. “Then it is a matter of getting these varieties containing those valuable traits into breeding programmes,” Mr Fowler explained. He added that all the data would be made available to everyone – both public and private organisations – in an online database. “Plant breeders will be able to go online and type their search criteria, then up pops the details of the samples that match the breeders’ requirements, such as drought tolerance or heat resistance.”

Developing crops that will be able to produce higher yields and cope with climate change is one avenue that is also being explored by the biotechnology sector. Campaigners in favour of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) hope that developments in this area will lessen public opposition to GM food. When asked whether he was concerned that the information gathered by the trust could be used to produce commercial GM crops, Fowler said: “We don’t have a horse in that race. “Agriculture is facing a lot of challenges, and diversity holds a lot of the keys to meeting those challenges. I wish I had a crystal ball good enough to see what agriculture is going to need 100 years or 500 years from now, but I don’t. All I would say is that the people involved in fighting the pro-GMO or anti-GMO battle don’t have that crystal ball either – the best we can do is conserve all the options.”