Special forces in the war on hunger

2018-01-30 06:00
Dr Learnmore Mwadzingeni, a post-doctoral fellow at the ACCI, examines a new variety of drought-tolerant wheat being developed by the ACCI.PHOTO: Rod Macleod

Dr Learnmore Mwadzingeni, a post-doctoral fellow at the ACCI, examines a new variety of drought-tolerant wheat being developed by the ACCI.PHOTO: Rod Macleod

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IN 2002, talk of climate change was still a murmur. In that year a small centre opened its doors in the agriculture faculty of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, with the ambitious goal of becoming a world-class training centre for African plant breeders.

Plant breeding, the systematic manipulation of plant genes to produce improved crop varieties, is crucial in the war on hunger. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) was set up to deal with two problems: plant-breeding programmes weren’t meeting the needs of the continent’s diverse agroecologies, and there weren’t enough plant breeders to fix this. At the time, although the Rockefeller Foundation was paying for African students to study overseas, only a third of them were returning home.

The ACCI developed a new model for training agricultural scientists in Africa that has been a standout success. Students received initial academic and practical training in Pietermaritzburg, before returning to their home countries to work on their PhD research, breeding crops in the actual agroecologies they were intended for.

“So far, we’ve produced 109 PhDs in plant breeding, with another 29 in the pipeline,” said Professor Mark Laing, director of the centre and one of its co-founders. “Since inception, the retention rate in Africa of our students has been 100%, more than 140 new crop varieties have been developed and we’ve had more than 200 research papers published in international journals.”

Many of their graduates are now in top positions in agriculture, producing world-class research on African crops. Testimony to the centre’s success was the decision made in 2007 by their new funder, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), to create a parallel centre in Ghana, the West African Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), using the same model.

BREEDING CLIMATE-SMART
‘SUPER CROPS’

Importantly, as a group these graduates have been perfectly positioned to tackle what has become the dominant ecological disaster of our time, climate change. Television footage of devastation caused by fires, floods and hurricanes has become an almost daily reminder of the growing hazards of changing weather, but less obvious is the looming food security crisis being shaped by this phenomenon, especially in Africa.

Changing weather conditions are impacting on heat, rainfall and length of seasons — all factors that will reduce crop yields — but it’s more complicated than that. “What’s significant about climate change is that it’s not just about more heat or one thing changing. It manifests in a variety of changes to existing weather patterns,” said Laing, a plant pathologist by training.

“One of these changes is erratic, unpredictable rainfall, a problem for most crops, because if there’s no rain at the time of flowering, pollination doesn’t happen. Another change is more or less rainfall than usual, both of which can cause crop failure. And across the continent, the rainy season is becoming shorter. If the duration becomes too short, crops run out of water before harvest,” said Laing.

Other effects of changing weather include reduced nutrition in crops and more pests and diseases plaguing them........ -Supplied

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