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Sustainable palm agriculture and biodiversity in Africa: from genomics to economics

Department of Life Sciences

Monday, January 04, 2021 Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Supervisors: Professor Vincent Savolainen (); Dr C M (Tilly) Collins, Centre for Environmental Policy

Department: Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London

Palm agriculture has received criticism due to its link with deforestation, especially in Asia. Savolainen and Collins (supervisors), together with 16 partners across Africa propose that there is an opportunity for sustainable palm futures on the continent (Curr. Res. Environ. Sust. 1:31-34, 2020). Applying interdisciplinary systems thinking and circular production models, food and economic security can be achieved sustainably by
(i) increasing resilience and productivity of crop palms in the harsh tropical climates of sub-Saharan Africa;
(ii) promoting integrated production of nutritionally valuable insect and fungal protein using palm crop waste; and
(iii) promoting the development of palm plantations as biodiverse agroforestry ecosystems.

This PhD project will address components of these ideas and will align with a major collaboration grant to supervisor Savolainen in partnership with the Marc Delorme Coconut Research Station (MDCRS), the world’s largest collection of Coconut palm ecotypes and varieties, located in Cote d’Ivoire. This grant addresses (i) above, has a focus on disentangling the genetic architecture underpinning drought tolerance in Coconut palms and is linked to previous work by supervisor Savolainen who identified genes for stress tolerance in Australian island Howea palms. The established partnership with MDCRS now provides substantial opportunity for work to expand our understanding of (ii) and (iii).

The PhD proposal here is to use the yield-focussed, experimental planting arrays (variation in genetic background, management regime, plant spacing) already held by the MDCRS to explore the effects of these variables on plantation biodiversity.

The student will design and conduct above-ground (flora & arthropod) and soil (metagenomics with a focus on mycorrhizae) biodiversity surveys and thus evaluate these alternative plantation models from a different perspective, that of intrinsic diversity and its contribution to resilience. This will underpin impactful advice for both intercrop diversity and natural vegetation diversity in palm plantation systems (e.g. Savolainen showed that soil microbes were key to adaptation and coexistence of Howea palms).

This will link to development of a model of circular economy for Coconut palms, quantifying the benefits of intercropping and insect and fungal farming from Coconut waste. These latter generate protein and soil conditioning co-products which support local enterprise and economy. This repurposing of ‘waste’ builds on previous work by co-supervisor Collins and we anticipate to support model parametrisation through MSc project work locally.

The student will thus contribute to a roadmap towards a sustainable palm future and create opportunity to improve palm farming in Africa by explicit inclusion of biodiversity and human benefits to this cropping cycle. This adds to economic and social gain and reduces environmental destruction while enhancing gross land productivity.

NERC eligibility applies (UK residency)


Please send to no later than 4 January 2021
Your CV
Letter of motivation
Name of two references

Funding Notes

NERC eligibility applies (UK residency)

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