As the world focuses its efforts and attention on decarbonising economic and industrial processes such as energy production, to offset the impact of climate change, it is also vital to explore ways in which to mitigate its effects on food security particularly in Africa. Several countries in Africa are experiencing severe flooding and prolonged droughts whose cumulative effects have degraded and destroyed vast tracts of fertile lands resulting in a poor agricultural harvest. Addressing this involves consistently conducting research into crops and plants that can resist climate change.
One of the academic experts currently looking into researching crops and plants is Professor Maryke Labuschagne. The University of the Free State (UFS)-based plant breeding specialist, has been awarded a fully funded visiting senior research fellowship in the Spanish Centres of Excellence where she will conduct research on legume and wheat breeding for disease resistance and quality.
Working on three continents
In addition, Professor Labuschagne will be working on soybean and bean phenotyping, genotyping, and disease resistance screening, and will be physically involved in all aspects of the research. “In this project, we are looking at the influence of heat and drought stress conditions on bread and durum wheat gluten proteins, and how this influences end-product quality,” she says. She is working on at least three continents, namely, Africa, North America and Europe to contribute toward food security in Africa in the context of worsening climate conditions in the form of unbearable heat and extraordinary droughts.
Professor Labuschagne does not only specialise in breeding crops that are resistant to climate change but those that also have good nutritional value. Most of these crops grow under adverse production conditions, a problem faced by most small-scale farmers in Africa. In addition to being an expert in plant breeding, Professor Labuschagne also holds the SARChI Research Chair in Disease Resistance and Quality in Field Crops at the UFS.
The research she will be undertaking in Spain ties in well with her responsibilities as SARChI Chair where she produces research on the breeding of cereal crops. The chair is also involved in training of PhD and MSc students from various countries working on different crops, including cowpea in Ghana, sorghum and maize in Ethiopia, cassava in Zambia, and maize in Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Forming partnerships in Africa
Over and above working in Europe, Professor Labuschagne has over the years been involved in similar initiatives on the African continent to deepen partnerships. For instance, she is currently conducting collaborative research with mainly the Consortium of International Agricultural Research centres (CGIAR) and other related regional research centres, working on the genetic improvement of staple crops such as maize, sorghum, legumes, and cassava.
Other organisations that she is working closely with include:
- the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Ethiopia on maize research, and with CIMMYT Mexico on wheat.
- the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria on cassava and cowpea, and with IITA in Zambia on cassava and
- the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, we are doing work on sorghum.
Empowerment of women in STEMi
The research fellowship is part of the Science by Women programme, a UNESCO initiative that aims to promote the leadership of African women in science. According to the UNESCO, the main goal of this programme is to empower African women scientists to address the great challenges faced by Africa through research on, among others, sustainable agriculture, food security, and climate change.
Furthermore, the initiative also aimed to see African women playing a leading role in the transition of Africa to a knowledge-based and innovation-led economy through research. This research should be such that it can be transferred to products, processes, services, and technologies that have an impact on people’s lives.