From Apple Variants to Centuries-Old Seeds, Science Seeks to Save Our Food

Nov 9, 2023

Our changing climate is not just altering the weather around us and where we can safely live. It’s also changing what’s available for us to eat.

Floods in America's West have destroyed more than a third of grape harvests. Heat and humidity have scorched apple orchards across the country. Small water supplies are threatening the global potato industry.

All of this has plant breeders and other scientists scrambling to address these threats to our food security. Some are using gene-editing to create fruits and vegetables that'll withstand harsh weather. Others are turning to centuries-old seed banks for clues on how to sustain crops wilting in the harsh sunlight and dying of disease.

Chris Walsh is a plant science professor at the University of Maryland. He's trying to develop apples that can survive in hotter weather, The Washington Post reports. Worldwide and US apple output has dropped sharply as temperatures climb. And Walsh has patented apple variants to address these climate issues. Walsh has currently named one MD-TAP1. It's an offspring of Gold Rush apples. The other is named MD-TAP2. It's a child of Fuji apples.

Walsh has altered the structure and genes of apples. He's made them smaller than most commercial harvests. Smaller apples means smaller trees. The theory is, the smaller trees will be more immune to fires that have destroyed US apple crops.

As for seed banks, scientists are mining more than 1,700 such batches. They aim to research how to preserve plant species or alter current species to withstand a warming planet. Stefan Schmitz is the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. He told The Guardian that seeds may not look like much, but they can prop up "our future food and nutrition security.”

Photo from Unsplash courtesy of Skylar Zilka.

Reflect: Why is it important for scientists and farmers to find ways to adapt our food sources to the challenges posed by climate change?

What conclusion is best supported by the evidence in this story? (Common Core RI.5.3; RI.6.3)
a. Apple orchards are unaffected by climate change.
b. The goal of gene-editing technology is to increase the size of apple trees.
c. Gene-editing technology is being used to create climate-resistant apple varieties.
d. Gene-editing technology is most commonly used to alter the taste of apples.
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