In the midst of a red, rocky stretch of land in the northeast of Syria, hundreds of rows of wheat brace themselves against a hot, dry wind. The plants are separated into small square plots by grassy pathways, ensuring no genetic material is transferred between sets.

At first glance, the dry, yellow crops look identical – they’re the only signs of life for kilometres around. But, in fact, they couldn’t be more different.

Some have grown tall and straight, while others are too wild and ‘hairy’. Some haven’t yet produced seeds, while others are ready to be harvested. Many couldn’t take the heat while a few thrived.

And these differences will determine what many populations will be eating in the next 10 to 20 years, and could decide how many people go hungry as Earth’s population grows.

“We’re looking for the crops that show both heat resistance and high yield,” says Francis Ogbonnaya, a wheat breeder with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), 30 km south of Aleppo, Syria.

While each plot is genetically different, all of the crops are the result of an arranged marriage between a wild Syrian wheat-relative (which exhibits heat resistance) and a domestic wheat crop from Sudan – a country that loses millions of dollars in crop yield annually due to extreme heat.

When it comes to finding plants that can handle the heat, Ogbonnaya is in the right place. Temperatures in Aleppo exceeded 40˚C almost every day during the 2010 Northern Hemisphere summer. Sometimes, it edged above 46˚C.

Those accustomed to rigorous lab controls may wonder how parameters can be controlled in such a wild environment: what if there’s a cold snap?

“That is one thing we never have to worry about here,” laughs Ogbonnaya, who formerly worked in Australia and continues to collaborate with Australia’s Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) to develop wheat strains suited to the harsh climate.

In the middle of the Arabian desert, it’s not just heat resistance that scientists are searching for: here the crops that will help civilisation survive on a rapidly changing planet are being put to the test.

Researchers have come from all over the world to create crops for the future: wheat that is resistant to drought and salinity, chickpeas that repel fungus and crops with significantly higher yields.

Genetically superior plants couldn’t come sooner – a perfect storm of obstacles is bearing down upon farmers, says Kenneth Street, an Australian agriculturalist and genetic resource scientist at ICARDA. The world’s population continues to grow rapidly, and is estimated that it could hit 10 billion by 2050. And as it is, we can’t feed the mouths we have: in 2010, almost one in seven people on the planet were malnourished.

The problem is not only that we have more mouths to feed, but the fact that everything we need to grow food – water, land, fertiliser – is running out at an alarming rate, stresses Street.

According to the United Nations, the world needs to double its output of food by 2050 in order to avoid global mass starvation; other estimates suggest a four-fold yield boost is needed. But – in line with his brazen and honest nature – Street warns that, the way things are looking now, we’ll be lucky to maintain our current rate of production.

“There’s climate change, our phosphorous is running out, most of the world’s water basins are being sucked dry – those are the three big ones. Then we’ve got competition between biofuels, as well as the problem that modern agriculture is heavily reliant upon fossil fuels – the U.S. alone uses one trillion litres of oil a year to make nitrogen fertiliser. What happens when the oil runs out? We’re also losing something like six billion hectares a year to land degradation, so you add all those things up and it’s scary.”

Climate change in particular is a concern for farmers and agricultural scientists, as it changes entire ecosystems at an unnatural rate – and crops can’t keep up.

It also alters the entire pest and insect game for plants, as species and diseases that were once confined to the tropics expand their reach to affect the rest of the world, adds Street. “I’m glad I’m going to be a really old bastard by the time this storm hits.”

To make matters worse, modern eating habits are becoming increasingly unsustainable. A November 2003 paper in The Journal of Nutrition by Cristopher Delgado of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC concluded that, by 2020, developing countries will eat 107 million tonnes more meat than they did in the late 1990s.

Given it can take over 50,000 L of water to produce 1 kg of beef (compared to around 1,000 L for 1 kg of wheat), this is going to increase pressure on already stressed resources.

The increase in output that we need to feed the growing world has been achieved before during the ‘green revolution’ that began in the early 1940s and continued into the late 1970s.

Led by the late Norman Borlaug, the agriculturalist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for a lifetime of work to feed the hungry, the movement involved rapid increases in wheat yield thanks to improvements in fertiliser, irrigation and breeding techniques. By the end of the 1970s, output in regions such as India had almost doubled – while using the same amount of land.

However, this increase was achieved by deploying weapons which today are less plentiful. “We only increased wheat yield with a lot of inputs – irrigation, fertiliser. We’ve now reached a plateau,” says Muhammad Imtiaz, senior chickpea breeder at ICARDA.

Without being able to increase inputs, the only hope is to improve the crops, says Imtiaz – making them work more efficiently and adapting them to better suit the region they will feed. And the only way to do this without genetically modifying organisms is to create new varieties containing the genes from the ancestors of domestic crops.

And this brings us back to Aleppo. Despite the barren terrain today, some 11,000 years ago Aleppo and most of northern Syria was part of the verdant Fertile Crescent – the region from which modern agriculture emerged. It was here that the eight Neolithic founder crops – emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, flax, chickpea, pea, lentil and bitter vetch – were first cultivated. And it was here that early humans realised that hunting and gathering might not be the best use of their time, so downed their spears and decided to bring the food to them.

It was in this region that early humans learnt to grow and harvest food – a movement known as the Neolithic revolution. In the thousands of years that followed, humanity changed greatly – and so did the plants we fed on.

In the beginning, agriculture wasn’t overly successful. To ensure they had enough to eat, early farmers chose plants that grew quickly and provided the most food. Through this selective breeding, modern crops were born. And they have served us well.

Yet, buried within the hundreds of thousands of plants that our ancestors didn’t pick (for one reason or another) are genes that have helped these wild plants survive in one of the harshest regions on the planet, enduring droughts, salinity and temperatures ranging from –12˚C to 50˚C. These genes now hold the hopes of scientists around the world and may offer a way to boost the output of regular crops. But thanks to the increasing focus on fewer and fewer higher-yield plants in modern agriculture, these genes – which could well be our saviours in the decades ahead – are fading into the background.

“Over the last 100 years, we’ve lost about 80% of our agricultural biodiversity,” says Street. “What a lot of people argue is that all the useful biodiversity has been captured within modern crop plants. But when you’ve got all the new disease and changes in the ecosystem, you don’t know what is going to come up and what useful biodiversity is there.”

A major part of Street and his team’s work at ICARDA is to go out and collect as many seeds of ancient species as possible and screen them for useful genes – a process that was shown in the 2008 Australian Broadcasting Corporation-screened documentary, Seed Hunter, of which Street was the star.

Usually not one to put himself in the limelight, he was willing to bring attention to a cause he has dedicated his life’s work to. “The whole point of the documentary was us trying to ‘make seeds sexy’, and bring awareness to the problem of diversity loss in crops.

“We rely on too few species – there are something like 20,000 edible species in the world, and we rely on four. And if we’re going to maintain that system, we’re going to need that biodiversity to help the crops evolve.”

Of course changes to ecosystems and new diseases occur regularly, and plants have survived these pressures for hundreds of years, adds Street.

But now the crops that we rely on are genetically uniform compared to their wild relatives and don’t have the capacity to adapt beyond the conditions they were bred for, he says.

“And things are changing so quickly, our crops can’t respond in one generation to the changes. Basically, we have to drive the evolution of our crop plants artificially.”

This process is similar to an online dating service; it collects as many candidate members as possible and then creates the most fruitful matches it can from within the membership.

Even with human intervention, the process is long and slow. First, a scientist needs to select and grow seeds that might display a desirable trait, which can range from flood resistance to the ability tolerate a disease.

This in itself is harder than it sounds. There are approximately six million types of seed contained in more than 1,300 genebanks around the world. Just looking for wheat seeds involves scouring well over 500,000 different seedtypes around the world.

Usually, scientists are given either a random selection of seeds or a core collection – which represents a small selection of seeds housed in the seed
bank, and is selected to provide the greatest amount of genetic diversity. The scientists then test these seeds to check whether they do indeed display the required trait. On average less than 10%, if any, do. Once a seed has been found that displays the desired trait, things are still just as tricky.

You can’t just give these to farmers, as they’re still wild and may have one desirable trait, such as pest resistance, but no other desirable ones, such as the ability to produce a high yield. So then comes the lengthy process of incorporating the trait from the wild plants into a modern variety. This is the stage that Ogbonnaya and his team are at with their heat-resistant crops. And it takes years.

Even getting the crops to breed can be a nightmare – and for some species, impossible. Scientists use the plants’ own methods of fertilisation, but they do the dirty work themselves, usually using tweezers and forceps.

Then, it can take up to 10 generations to combine the useful traits from each parent in a way that creates the best crop possible. Basically, this involves breeding out all the ‘junk’ genes that are transferred from the wild relative along with the useful ones. When a new variety is finally created, it is shipped off around the world for local breeders to optimise it for their region and then distribute it to the farmers.

ICARDA has provided many such strains to Australia with great success, such as cereal crops that are resistant to fungal diseases called ‘rust’ and have saved the industry A$289 million a year. “Generally, it takes 10–12 years to develop one variety of crop,” says Imtiaz.

When food is a matter of life or death, this isn’t always an amount of time that can be afforded. Researchers at ICARDA are currently trying to speed up the process.

Street is starting at the beginning, and trying to ensure that the seeds provided by seed banks have a higher likelihood of containing the desired trait – saving both time and money.

The program, known as the Focussed Identification of Germplasm Strategy (FIGS), could improve the likelihood of finding the trait farmers want from 10% to 80%.

“FIGS could revolutionise the way we approach gene banks,” says Street. The premise of FIGS is not to give researchers the most amount of genetic diversity, but to give them the specific trait they are looking for by examining the environment from which the seed was collected.

“For example, if we’re looking for a drought resistant crop, we’re going to look in low rainfall environments in which the seasonal rainfall is highly variable - this type of environment may have forced local populations to evolve towards physiological drought tolerance,” says Street.

But it gets much more specific than that. In the past, farmers needed crops that would withstand boron toxicity; a trait that FIGS correctly deduced would be found in marine origin soils along the Mediterranean cost.

FIGS has also been responsible for finding the first evidence of Russian wheat aphid (Syrian Biotype) and Sunn pest resistance in bread wheat –
pests that cost farmers millions of dollars a year in lost yield.

Of course, this isn’t the only place where the process can be sped up. Molecular biology has the potential to revolutionise the creation of new crop strains – and already has in some cases.

Genetic markers for traits are common in crops such as wheat and barley, and these allow researchers to confirm that what they’re looking for is in fact present in a plant – removing a lot of the guess work and cutting procedures that would usually take three months down to a week, says Imtiaz.

While the markers for wheat and barley are available to speed up the process, other crops, which are equally vital to food security, haven’t been able to keep up due to lack of investment. Chickpeas, for example – which Imtiaz works on – have only just begun to have their genetic markers identified.

Despite the tiny funds attributed to them, legumes are a crucial part of the future of our food systems, and a severely underrated one, according to Imtiaz – another ICARDA researcher who works closely with the GRDC and University of Western Australia to provide improved chickpea strains.

“People talk about food security, but wheat cannot sustain people on its own. If you plant just wheat, then productivity will go down and your soil will be continuously degraded,” says Imtiaz.

The other way to get improved crops to farmers faster is the one that no one readily wants to talk about: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). None of the crops produced by ICARDA are genetically modified, and yet there are contained labs set up on the site and introductory work being carried out, in case the process ever becomes more accepted.

The scientists are preparing for good reason – GMO technology could take the 12-year process of creating a new crop strain down to as little as a year or two, according to Imtiaz.Creating GMOs involves manipulating an organism’s genetic material by a method that doesn’t occur in nature – for example, by using bacteria to transfer an appropriate gene from one organism to another.

In agriculture, this often involves taking a gene and incorporating it into a modern crop. This can provide a number of beneficial traits without the need for the lengthy breeding process. And it won’t only shorten the procedure, it will open up avenues for a range of traits that can’t be incorporated into modern crops the traditional way.

This includes creating crop strains using genes not only from different plants, but also different organisms.

Examples include the CSIRO taking an insect-resistant gene from wheat and using it to create a strain of genetically modified cotton that has reduced cotton pesticide use by over 80% in Australia.

This ability would be a major benefit for chickpeas: out of the eight or so wild chickpea species, only two can be bred with domestic varieties. The other wild species could hide many desirable traits, says Imtiaz; but without GMO technology, we will not be able to harness their benefit.

About 134 million hectares of farmland worldwide are currently used to grow genetically modified crops – including cotton, rice and corn.

But in the public mind at least, there are still significant concerns about the technique’s safety, both to people and the environment.

After reviewing extensive research, the World Health Organisation currently does not find genetically modified food a threat to human health, but scientists accept the reality that people still worry about the long-term effects.

Imtiaz understands the concerns, but feels GMOs will only ever play a specific – yet crucial – role in agriculture. “GMO technology will never replace normal breeding – you’re only going to use GMO when you don’t have any other way of getting the trait.”

Street agrees, but thinks that eventually people will have to come to accept GM as a normal facet of modern agriculture. “I’m all for organic agriculture,” he stresses.

“But if we’re going to maintain the agricultural system we have, then we are going to have to bring yields to unprecedented levels using whatever tools are at our disposal or just say, ‘OK all these masses of people are going to die, we don’t have enough food and we don’t feel comfortable using certain technologies’.

We’ve got in our toolbox stuff that can integrate genes from, say, a bacterium, into crop plants, so that they’re not eaten by insects.

Should we do that? It’s OK for us to sit back and say it’s messing with nature, but what do we tell a farmer in Africa when half his crops get destroyed by an insect that’s moved down [due to] climate change?”

Ogbonnaya is of the same view: “If we can ensure that people can have nutritious food, then we should do it if it’s safe.”

Overall it seems the researchers agree that GM should only be used as a last resort – and that we are quickly approaching that juncture. “My primary drive is seeing people who have had drought just for one year go starving – thinking I can contribute to alleviating poverty by ensuring everyone has food on the table,” says Ogbonnaya.

It’s ironic that the salvation of millions from starvation in the decades ahead rests on wild plants previously ignored or tossed aside by humanity.

But knowing that they have endured frosty nights, days of 46˚C and batterings of sandy, hot winds – not just this year, but in the thousands of years since the Fertile Crescent’s desertification – suggests that they might just be able to help. Hopefully, we’ll find them in time.