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Climate Resilient Seed Systems in Africa

Project Description

Crop breeding is a key area of investment in African agricultural development, as supported by the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Platform and large donor funded programmes (such as those of the CGIAR and the BMGF) (Whitfield, 2015). As climate risks and incidences of acute stress (both climatic and non-climatic) intensify across southern Africa, impacting on agricultural production and food security (Jones and Thornton, 2003, Ramirez-Villegas and Thornton, 2015), the development and adoption of improved seeds are looked to as a way of building climate resilience. Targeting the development of traits such as early maturity and drought tolerance in dominant food crops (such as maize and rice) is justified in part of the basis of contributing towards climate resilience (see for example the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa initiative).
In order to effectively build resilience within seed systems, McGuire and Sperling (2013) argue that innovation should be informed by relevant information at appropriate temporal scales. This includes shared learning between crop breeding programmes and the climate and climate impacts science community about what traits to crops and traits to target within breeding programmes. It also includes shared learning between breeding programmes and farmers about varietal preferences and performance under climate conditions.
Because of the accelerated rate at which climatic conditions are changing across sub-Saharan Africa, and the time lags associated with the development and delivery of improved seed varieties (Challinor et al., 2016), it is essential that future projections of climate impacts help to shape the priorities and approaches to breeding climate resilient seeds. There is a need, for example, for studies of future crop suitability (Rippke et al., 2016) to help point to priority crops and target analogue climatic environments from which to source germplasm for breeding, or for projections of the combined effects of temperature and rainfall variability to inform an understanding of the costs and benefits of targeting early maturing traits. There is need for assessments of the rate and severity of climate change to inform ongoing debate in many African countries over technological advances in crop breeding (such as around GM technology) (Challinor, et al., 2016). There is also need for studies of climate adaptation within rural livelihoods and for farmer seed choices and decision making to shape the way in which new seeds are targeted, delivered and disseminated.

This project represents an opportunity to build on the work of the GCRF-AFRICAP programme at the University of Leeds. There is an exciting opportunity to integrate and build on work in the Sustainability Research Institute on seed system process and bottlenecks in Africa (Whitfield, 2017), in the Centre for Plant Sciences on crop root architecture and rhizosphere processes, and advancing breeding techniques and technologies (Roychoudhry et al., 2017), and in the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science on climate impacts on African food crops (Rippke et al., 2016; Challinor et al., 2016).
Depending on the expertise and interests of the student, the proposed project will potentially involve a combination of:
(1) the use of climate and crop impact modelling tools for evaluating the implications of climate impacts on key crop types and varieties and to investigate the trade-offs associated with different target traits;
(2) analysis of multi-country household and seed choice survey data, and conducting participatory rural livelihoods research, for evaluating the farmer seed strategies in case study countries;
(3) case-study based evaluations of technological crop breeding capabilities and seed system processes in southern Africa
Through cross-disciplinary research, the project will provide unique insight into (1) the effectiveness of varied crop breeding strategies for agricultural climate change adaptation; (2) novel ways in which climate projections and rural livelihoods research can inform crop breeding strategies; and (3) key areas of constraint or investment/capacity building priorities for policy, technological and/or informational development build climate resilience in seed systems.

As well as benefiting from the central research training programme provided through the Panorama DTP, the project offers a variety of associated training, through the GCRF-AFRICAP programme, the Environment and Development research group within the Sustainability Research Institute and the Climate Impacts Group of the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Leeds.

Funding Notes

This project is being advertised through the NERC Panorama DTP (View Website), and is subject to a competitive funding process .


Challinor, A.J., Koehler, A.K., Ramirez-Villegas, J., Whitfield, S. and Das, B., 2016. Current warming will reduce yields unless maize breeding and seed systems adapt immediately. Nature Climate Change, 6(10), pp.954-958.
Jones, P.G. and Thornton, P.K., 2003. The potential impacts of climate change on maize production in Africa and Latin America in 2055. Global environmental change, 13(1), pp.51-59
McGuire, S. and Sperling, L., 2013. Making seed systems more resilient to stress. Global Environmental Change, 23(3), pp.644-653.
Ramirez-Villegas J, Thornton PK. 2015. Climate change impacts on African crop production. CCAFS Working Paper no. 119. Copenhagen, Denmark: CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)
Rippke, U., Ramirez-Villegas, J., Jarvis, A., Vermeulen, S.J., Parker, L., Mer, F., Diekkrüger, B., Challinor, A.J. and Howden, M., 2016. Timescales of transformational climate change adaptation in sub-Saharan African agriculture. Nature Climate Change, 6(6), pp.605-609.
Roychoudhry, S., Kieffer, M., Del Bianco, M., Liao, C.Y., Weijers, D., Kepinski, S., 2017. The developmental and environmental regulation of gravitropic setpoint angle in Arabidopsis and bean. Scientific Reports 7 DOI:10.1038/srep42664
Whitfield, S., 2015. Adapting to climate uncertainty in African agriculture: narratives and knowledge politics. Routledge.
Whitfield, S., 2017. GM Crops ‘For Africa’. In Sumberg, J (eds.) Agronomy for Development: The Politics of Knowledge in Agricultural Research, Earthscan pp.44-58.

How good is research at University of Leeds in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 79.20

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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