As the climate begins to change, transforming formerly fertile agricultural regions into dusty, arid fields, scientists are determined to adapt. Jill Farrant, a professor of molecular and cell biology in Cape Town, South Africa, believes the key to breeding more drought-tolerant crops lies in a unique group of flora called “resurrection plants,” which can go dormant for years, only to return when conditions are more favorable.
These remarkable plants adapt to drought by shriveling up and appearing to be dead — sometimes for as long as years at a time — only to revive completely when rain finally comes. Around the world, more than 130 known varieties of resurrection plants exist. Farrant’s research involves activating genes within staple food crops that would allow them to respond to drought the in same way.
Currently, she’s working with teff, a grass native to Ethiopia which grows grain used to make flatbread, porridge, and other traditional foods. If successful, her research would allow farmers in drought-stricken regions to maintain their livelihoods and protect against the famines many fear are on the horizon in Africa.
It’s important to note, however, that breeding drought-resistant crops won’t necessarily ensure food security in regions affected by climate change. A recent report out of the UK suggested that the world was just three potential disasters away from experiencing global food shock. While harnessing the power of resurrection plants for food crops would be a legitimate scientific breakthrough, we shouldn’t let this research stop us from trying to slow global warming as much as possible.