Illuminating a dark world with climate-smart crop innovations

By Nick Austin

As someone who works at a foundation committed to achieving a world without hunger and poverty, I’m often asked how it’s possible to reach such an ambitious goal—especially when it comes to growing enough food to feed a global population likely to reach 10 billion by 2050. 

I admit that it’s an enormous challenge. But I point out that vital clues to reaching this goal can be found in fields and research labs across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where today there are a growing number of talented scientists and researchers developing innovations that can help transform the lives of the world’s poorest farmers. 

They can be found in Nigeria, where crop scientists are rolling out new varieties of disease-resistant, vitamin-rich cassava, a hardy  crop that can naturally withstand rising temperatures and unreliable rains. And in  India, where breeders are tapping a collection of crop wild relatives to develop new varieties of heat-tolerant pearl millet, a sturdy crop and nutritious super food, for farmers across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In Malawi, farmers may soon be planting a new variety of fast-maturing beans that can produce a good harvest even in a growing season cut short by drought.

Chiedozie Egesi, leading the NextGen Cassava team at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to produce
disease-resistant, vitamin-rich cassava varieties. Photo credit: Cornell University

I think about these examples for a much-needed infusion of optimism after the unsettling news earlier this month from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that global hunger is continuing to rise. It’s a trend that is erasing years of progress and clearly taking us farther away from achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG2) of zero hunger by 2030.

Much of the problem is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa where hunger, poverty, and especially climate change are coming together to produce a dangerous downward spiral. Most people in the region depend on farming for nutrition and income. Now a surge of droughts, floods, and increasingly unreliable rains are crippling crop and livestock production. These impacts are pushing the vulnerable further into crisis and threatening millions of farmers in places like Ethiopia and Rwanda, where successful efforts to boost their productivity have generated historical reductions in poverty. 

Yes, the challenges we face on the road to SDG2—and in meeting key targets that include doubling the productivity and income of small-scale food producers—are enormous. But it’s important to bear in mind that we are far from powerless in this fight. 

Similar advances in breeding climate-smart crops are emerging from a strong cadre of scientists working with the international network of agricultural research centers known as CGIAR.

Clare Mukankusi, developing climate-smart beans at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
Photo credit: Georgina Smith/CIAT

In Uganda, Clare Mukankusi, a scientist with the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture
(it’s often referred to by its Spanish acronym CIAT), had originally planned to be a physician. Now her children call her a “plant doctor.” She’s part of the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance that’s developing more resilient bean varieties for Africa, like 
these drought-tolerant beans being tested in Malawi. 


Shivali Sharma, of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), seeking new varieties
of heat-tolerant pearl millet by looking for traits in its wild relatives. Photo Credit: Michael Major, Crop Trust

In India, Shivali Sharma with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), is developing new varieties of pearl millet—a crop grown by 30 million farmers across Asia and Africa. Many in rural India use it to make a flatbread called bajra chapatis. Like cassava, pearl millet is a naturally hardy crop. But climate change is still capable of eroding yields, prompting Dr Sharma and her colleagues to probe wild relatives of pearl millet for traits that can make it even more adaptable to hotter, dryer conditions.

There’s also work underway elsewhere in the CGIAR System to develop new varieties of rice that withstand flooding and soils tainted with salt. And Bill Gates recently wrote about the progress in developing drought-tolerant varieties of maize, Africa’s most important food crop. 

All of these and many other types of “climate-smart” crops are not, by themselves, sufficient to give poor farmers what they need to adapt to climate change and overcome hunger and poverty. But they are the essential building block upon which all other forms of adaptation—like better soil and water management and advances in climate forecasts—will depend upon to succeed. 

In what can feel like a darkening world of rising hunger, these scientific innovations shine powerful rays of much-needed hope. They can help illuminate a path that, if we can summon the will to act, can lead us away from a dim future to a much more promising place—one where zero hunger is once again within our grasp. 


About the author: 


Nick Austin is director of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In this role, he leads the team that works to reduce poverty for millions of farming families in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by increasing agricultural productivity in a sustainable way.