Climate change threatens tea -- but its DNA could save it

Chungui Lu is Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at the Nottingham Trent University. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation

(CNN)The world's most popular drink (after water) is under threat.

We already know much about the threat of climate change to staple crops such as wheat, maize and rice, but the impact on tea is just coming into focus.
Early research indicates that tea grown in some parts of Asia could see yields decline by up to 55% thanks to drought or excessive heat, and the quality of the tea is also falling.
    The intensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in tea plantations has also led to soil degradation at an average annual rate of 2.8%. This also causes chemical runoff into waterways, which can lead to serious problems for human health and the environment.

    DNA to the rescue

    However, hope may be on the horizon now that scientists at the Kunming Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have sequenced the entire tea genome.
    Mapping the exact sequence of DNA in this way provides the foundation for extracting all the genetic information needed to help breed and speed up development of new varieties of the tea plant. And it could even help improve the drink's flavor and nutritional value.
    Freshly picked tea leaves.
    In particular, the whole tea tree genome reveals the genetic basis for tea's tolerance to environmental stresses, pest and disease resistance, flavor, productivity and quality.