CCAFS study on maize breeding chosen as a groundbreaking scientific article that could help change the world

The paper made Springer Nature’s list of potential world-changing articles in 2016.

Knowing when and how climate change will impact crop production is essential for enabling farmers to adapt their growing strategies. Recent advances in methods to measure the potential response of crops to the various effects of weather or climate, combined with crop yield modelling, has opened the door to precise assessments of what could happen – and what we need to do to support future food production.

In Africa, maize will experience heat stress, drought stress and a shorter growing period (crop duration). On the farm, reduced crop duration means that maize plants may not be able to fully mature, with potentially catastrophic results for farmers and the millions of people who regularly consume maize. One potential adaptation strategy is to breed maize varieties with shorter crop durations. However, a paper published in Nature Climate Change in 2016 found we are already lagging behind. 

Researchers analysed whether crop breeding – just one of many ways to tackle climate impacts in agriculture – is keeping up with the anticipated impacts on African maize. Their answer was a stark “No”, and they called for immediately expanding efforts to adapt crops to withstand predicted climate changes and making them immediately available to farmers.

The study, led by Andy Challinor from the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds and CCAFS and co-authored by researchers from Leeds, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Maize and Improvement Center (CIMMYT), points out that the current pipeline for breeding climate-ready maize varieties is not keeping pace with the rate of climate change. Shorter crop duration will become a reality by 2031 in many locations, causing reductions in yield for most of Africa.

Since it can take up to 30 years for new varieties to be developed, delivered and adopted by farmers, it is already urgent that investment in maize for Africa increase significantly.

Editors-in-Chief of Springer Nature selected over 180 articles in 6 subjects as part of the “Change the World, One Article at a Time” initiative that they believe could have the greatest impact on society’s most pressing problems. The CCAFS study is one of the 34 articles in the topic of earth and environmental sciences.

Read more about the study in this CCAFS research highlight: Climate change will reduce maize yields unless breeding and seed systems adapt immediately


Challinor AJ, Koehler AK, Ramirez-Villegas J, Whitfield S, Das B. 2016. Current warming will reduce yields unless maize breeding and seed systems adapt immediately. Nature Climate Change 6:954-958. [Free access until July 2017]


This work was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

This research was partly funded by the NERC/DFID Future Climate For Africa programme under the AMMA-2050 project, grant number NE/M020126/1.

The authors thank E. Hawkins from NCAS—University of Reading for advice on signal-to-noise analysis; J. Cairns, K. Sonder and M. Bänzinger from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) for providing comments and literature on maize breeding under climate change; A. Jarvis from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) for early discussions and insightful comments on the final draft of the manuscript; and B. Badu-Apraku and D. Fakorede from the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) for comments on early results. J.R.-V. thanks C. Grenier from CIAT for literature and discussion on breeding pipelines. We acknowledge funding from the CGIAR Research Program on MAIZE.

This research is carried out with support from CGIAR Fund Donors and through bilateral funding agreements. The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from: Australia (ACIAR); Ireland (Irish Aid); Netherlands (Ministry of Foreign Affairs); New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade; Switzerland (SDC); Thailand; The UK Government (UK Aid); The United States (USAID) and the European Union (EU). The Program is carried out with technical support from The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).