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Earth First

3 Resilient Crops For Changing Climates

As the climate continues to destabilise, food security is put under increasing pressure. These three crops could help us keep our plates full in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

1. Pulses

The dry, edible seeds of plants in the legume family (e.g. Beans, Peas, Chickpeas, and Lentils)

Rich in nutrients

Pulses are nutritionally high in protein and contain a range of beneficial vitamins and minerals thought to protect against a range of chronic diseases.1

Water-efficient

Pulses have a small water footprint (roughly 19 litres per gram of protein, compared with 112 litres for beef), making them well-suited to thrive in challenging environments.2

Improve soil quality

Pulses don’t require large inputs of chemical fertilisers due to a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which add nutrients to the soil.

Pulses are already established in many cuisines, but lesser-known varieties could boost our future food security. For example, Bambara groundnuts (a staple in sub-Saharan Africa) thrive even in acidic soils and are considered a ‘complete food’ due to their balance of carbohydrates, fibre, micronutrients and essential amino acids.

2. Edible cacti

Cacti with edible fruits, flowers and/or pads (e.g. Prickly Pear, Barrel, Saguaro and Dragon Fruit Cacti)

Easy to grow

Cacti require very little water to grow and can be easily cultivated: fallen cacti leaves will often quickly produce roots and start growing entirely independently.

Rich in nutrients

Cacti fruits, flowers, oil and cladodes (flattened shoots rising from the stem) can be very nutritious, containing a range of vitamins, proteins, fats and fibre.

Versatile to cook with

Cacti fruits, flowers and pads (depending on the species) can be eaten raw or cooked in stews and soups, transformed into pickles, juices or jams - or enjoyed Mexican-style with eggs and jalapeños for breakfast!

Their super water-storage abilities make cacti the perfect climate-proof crop, able to grow in arid lands where no other plants can. Nopales (also called prickly pear or cactus pear) are particularly adaptive and are already farmed and eaten across Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East.3

3. Millets

Small-grained grasses that are grown as cereals (e.g. Pearl, Finger, Proso and Foxtail Millet)

Resilient

Finger millet is known as a ‘famine crop’ since it can remain dormant during dry spells, requires little water to grow and its seeds are resistant to pests and spoilage, giving them a long shelf life.4 

Highly nutritious

Millets are some of the most nutritious cereal crops, with high levels of protein, vitamin B1, fibre and calcium.

Multi-purpose food

Similar in texture to couscous and with a mild flavour, finger millet grains can be eaten as porridge, milled into flour and used in bread or pancakes, or even used to brew beer.

Millets can be grown in areas with very little rainfall. Finger millet, in particular, is a staple cereal for many of the arid regions of Africa and South Asia, also because it can grow on low-fertility soils without needing expensive and polluting chemical fertilisers.5 

The role of genetic engineering 

Even if we embrace a wider diversity of crop types, this may not be enough. Climate change is altering environments and weather patterns so quickly that we may need to go beyond the existing genetic diversity.1 Genetically-modified crops are a controversial topic, but more modern genetic engineering techniques make only small changes to an organism’s DNA, rather than introducing entire genes from other species. Potentially, this could tweak individual crop genes to quickly develop varieties that are more resistant to stresses such as pests, drought and high temperatures or that have better yields and nutritional qualities. 

Genetic engineering could, therefore, give us a head start in adapting crops to suit changing conditions so that agricultural land can remain productive. For instance, rice is particularly sensitive to high salt levels – a problem that climate change is aggravating. Using a genetic engineering technique called CRISPR-Cas9, a research team deactivated a gene linked to salt tolerance.5 The resulting plants had significantly enhanced salt tolerance without any other traits being affected. Remarkably, this engineered crop was developed in just a year.5

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