‘Lab in Field’ Study Reveals One Upside of Climate Change: Better Crop Yield

(CN) – Increased temperatures in colder months as a result of climate change have one surprising upside – increased rapeseed crop yield, according to a study published Thursday.

Oilseed rape heated field trials. (Phil Robinson)

The study, conducted by the John Innes Centre and published in the journal Current Biology, explores how researchers set up a “lab in a field” experiment to better understand the potential connection between warmer October months and higher yield rates of rapeseed, a common crop that is used as a key ingredient in vegetable oil and animal feed.

Researchers discovered through this experiment that when rapeseed experience higher temperatures in October, a time of the year that is crucial to their long-term growth, the plants have an increased chance of producing a higher, more bountiful crop come the following spring when they are harvested. The study reports that in the most optimal conditions, this could result in yield rates increasing by up to 30%.

Professor Steve Penfield of the John Innes Centre, one of the authors of the study, says that this increased yield is the result of the warmer October months delaying the inevitable flowering of the plants, causing them to flower later and more productively.

“We found that oilseed rape plants stop growing when they go through the floral transition at the end of October, and that warmer temperatures at this time of year enable the plant to grow for longer, giving more potential for higher yields,” Penfield said with the release of the study.

Data suggests that this delaying effect that warmer October months has on rapeseed is so critical because it determines when the crop makes the change from being in a vegetative state to a flowering state. The later in the crop’s lifespan that this transition, known as vernalization, begins, the more likely it is that the crop yields will increase come cultivation.

Penfield says that because climate change has made October months generally warmer, this is one of the rare examples where the consequences of rising average temperatures may actually prove to be helpful for farmers.

“By establishing the link between autumn temperatures and yield, our study highlights an example of climate change being potentially useful to farmers. Cold Octobers have a negative effect on yield if you are growing oilseed rape, and these are now rarer,” Penfield said.

Researchers made this discovery by testing separate rapeseed crops with different temperature conditions. They found that when they used soil surface warming equipment to raise the temperature of the oilseed rape crops by 4-8 degrees Celsius (7-14 degrees Fahrenheit), thereby simulating a warmer October month, the crops responded with delayed vernalization.

The study reports that this is the first time this kind of soil-warming technology has been used for such a purpose, as it was previously used for experiments in grasslands to replicate winter warming effects.

Penfield says that these results were only achievable because of new research techniques.

“This study was only possible because were able to create the lab into a field to simulate how climate change is affecting U.K. agriculture. It’s important to be able to do this because yield is highly weather dependent in oilseed rape and it is very likely that climate change will have big consequences for the way we can use crops and the type of variety that we need to deploy,” Penfield said.

This study on a possible benefit of rising temperatures comes in amid a time when the issue of the climate crisis and its consequences continues to be intensely discussed among scientific circles. Last month, a report signed by 11,258 scientists declared a “climate emergency” with rising global temperatures being listed as one of the more significant threats Earth faces as a result of climate change.

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