Learning to adapt
About a million hectares of farmland around Finland is used to grow crop varieties that will not be competitive in the conditions predicted for the year 2025. One reason for this is climate change. Professor Pirjo Peltonen-Sainio of MTT Agrifood Research Finland believes that farmers’ only option is to find ways to adapt quickly and effectively.Forecasts place Finland in a zone where climatic warming will be greater than the global average. “Finland has to take climatic warming seriously without delay. We must initiate adaptation measures urgently,” says Pirjo Peltonen-Sainio. As average daily temperatures rise, crops will grow faster during the long days and light nights of the northern summer. This sounds like good news. “But there’s a risk that the crop varieties we’re farming today will reach maturity too quickly, and have to be harvested sooner. In this case yields will not rise, even though the temperature sum increases.”
Crop varieties suited to local conditions have always been bred here in Finland, and Peltonen-Sainio is assured that this work will continue: “In the future we will still depend on varieties that have been bred to cope with our specific conditions.” By 2025 climate change can already be expected to have significant impacts in Finland’s latitudes. This means that crop breeders must work urgently to enable successful adaptation. Developing and adopting new crop varieties takes at least ten years.
Winter cereals and legumes
Research findings indicate that current varieties of spring-sown cereals and seed crops such as spring wheat, oats, barley and rapeseed will no longer thrive in the warming climates of the north. In warmer conditions and during the long days of the early summer their growth rate will increase, but by harvesting time their overall productivity will decline.
"Most of the million hectares of farmland in Finland is used to cultivate varieties that will no longer thrive in conditions just fifteen years from now," says Peltonen-Sainio. But not all varieties will be losers. Winter cereals and leguminous crops will benefi t from climate change. Winter crops sprout roots soon after they are sown in the autumn, but then lie dormant until the spring arrives. Yields are expected to rise, even if farmers stick with current varieties.
"We've already been preparing for the future. MTT Agrifood Research
Finland and Boreal Plant Breeding Ltd are collaborating on a climate change adaptation project known as ILMASOPU. The situation is favourable, as Finnish crop breeders are well equipped to consider future needs right now."
Varieties produced by Finnish breeders account for the lion's share of the crops grown widely across the country. Peltonen-Sainio believes that future challenges related to agricultural production internationally will be so tough that the breeding of crop varieties tailored for cultivation north of 60o North will continue to be the preserve of local businesses. Finland is too small and specialised a market for supranational companies to invest much effort.
By Kati Leppälahti
Photos Miika Kainu