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UK varsity develops wheat plants that can survive drought conditions

On an average, it takes more than 1,800 litres of water to produce a single kg of wheat - REUTERS

Scientists have engineered wheat plants that utilise water more efficiently, and may be able to better survive drought conditions arising due to climate change.

Scientists at the University of Sheffield in the UK found that engineering wheat to have fewer stomata helps the crop to use water more efficiently, while maintaining yields.

Agriculture accounts for 80-90 per cent of freshwater use around the world, and on average it takes more than 1,800 litres of water to produce a single kg of wheat.

Yet as water supplies become scarce and more variable in the face of climate breakdown, farmers will need to produce more food than ever to feed a growing population.

Like most plants, wheat uses stomata to regulate its intake of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, as well as the release of water vapour. When water is plentiful, stomatal opening helps plants to regulate temperature by evaporative cooling — similar to sweating.

In drought conditions, wheat plants normally close their stomata to slow down water loss — but wheat with fewer stomata has been found to conserve water even better, and can use that water to cool itself. During the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Botany, the scientists grew wheat in conditions similar to those expected under climate breakdown — with higher levels of carbon dioxide and less water.

Compared to conventional wheat, the engineered plants used less water while maintaining photosynthesis and yield. The research builds on the team’s work to develop climate-ready rice, which found that rice with fewer stomata used 40 per cent less water than conventional breeds and was able to survive drought and temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius.

Julie Gray, professor at the Institute for Sustainable Food, said: “Developing wheat that uses water more efficiently will help us to feed our growing population while using fewer natural resources — making our food systems more resilient in the face of climate breakdown.”

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