U of I studies how climate change affects wheat-eating bugs

A team is looking at what global warming could mean for a population of beetles that destroy wheat.


A couple of ordinary-looking refrigerator-type chambers at the University of Idaho may soon reveal what farmers might expect as the planet warms and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere go up.

The chambers, which are being monitored this summer by Seth Davis and Nate Foote of the U of I, are used to measure the effect of normal and higher rates of carbon dioxide on the cereal leaf beetle - an insect that can be devastating to wheat crops. The experiment is part of a national project aimed at helping scientists understand what could happen to the ecosystem as global warming continues throughout the 21st century.

"Everyone should be happy that our projections are saying that in this region, in the near term, (effects from global warming) are not significantly damaging," said U of I entomologist Sanford Eigenbrode. "In the long term the uncertainty is greater but unless there is some reversal of the process it's going to get very hard to grow wheat here ultimately. The idea is to be ready."

Eigenbrode heads a $20 million five-year collaborative project called Regional Approaches to Climate Change for Pacific Northwest Agriculture, or REACCH.

The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and includes scientists and students from the U of I, Washington State University, Oregon State University and the USDA's agriculture research service. Eigenbrode's team includes Davis, Foote, Byju Govindan and professor Claudio Stockle of WSU.

The team participated in the National Assessment of Climate Change released recently by the Obama administration, warning of the potential consequences of continued global warming.

It may seem trivial to study the effects of higher levels of carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures on a bug, but the experiment is a bellwether for some of the challenges farmers would face in a changing environment.

The cereal leaf beetle was introduced into the Palouse in the late 1990s but has since been successfully controlled by a parasite wasp that feeds on the beetle and reduces its effect.

Eigenbrode said there are indications, however, the beetle and the wasp would adapt differently in a warmer climate with higher carbon dioxide levels.

The parasite is likely not to be as effective at controlling the beetle, thus increasing the potential for damage to wheat and other cereal grain crops.

"We're learning more about how the system works under different climate conditions," Eigenbrode said.

There is already evidence in other wheat-producing countries that sustained drought can destroy crop yields.

"There are parts of the world that used to produce crops that don't anymore," Eigenbrode said. "We really don't want to be one of those places."

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