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Glob Food Sec. 2017 Mar;12:31-37. doi: 10.1016/j.gfs.2017.01.008.

Rapid breeding and varietal replacement are critical to adaptation of cropping systems in the developing world to climate change.

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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, United States.
CIMMYT, Zimbabwe.
Syngenta, Zambia.


Plant breeding is a key mechanism for adaptation of cropping systems to climate change. Much discussion of breeding for climate change focuses on genes with large effects on heat and drought tolerance, but phenology and stress tolerance are highly polygenic. Adaptation will therefore mainly result from continually adjusting allele frequencies at many loci through rapid-cycle breeding that delivers a steady stream of incrementally improved cultivars. This will require access to elite germplasm from other regions, shortened breeding cycles, and multi-location testing systems that adequately sample the target population of environments. The objective of breeding and seed systems serving smallholder farmers should be to ensure that they use varieties developed in the last 10 years. Rapid varietal turnover must be supported by active dissemination of new varieties, and active withdrawal of obsolete ones. Commercial seed systems in temperate regions achieve this through competitive seed markets, but in the developing world, most crops are not served by competitive commercial seed systems, and many varieties date from the end of the Green Revolution (the late 1970s, when the second generation of modern rice and wheat varieties had been widely adopted). These obsolete varieties were developed in a climate different than today's, placing farmers at risk. To reduce this risk, a strengthened breeding system is needed, with freer international exchange of elite varieties, short breeding cycles, high selection intensity, wide-scale phenotyping, and accurate selection supported by genomic technology. Governments need to incentivize varietal release and dissemination systems to continuously replace obsolete varieties.


Climate change adaptation; Genetic gains; Germplasm exchange; Rapid crop breeding; Seed systems; Varietal replacement

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