The best defence: developing aphid-resistant wheat for smallholder farmers in southern Africa


The Russian wheat aphid (Diuraphis noxia) is a destructive pest

A partnership between wheat scientists at Rothamsted Research and Seed Co Ltd, Africa’s largest seed company, is attempting to breed wheat resistant to two aphid species.

Smallholder farmers growing wheat crops in southern Africa face losing up to half of their wheat yields to aphids. Pesticides that could prevent such attacks are often too expensive, but scientists are screening wheat lines to look for a new, cheaper way to protect African wheat from aphids. The scientists hope to identify resistance to two major aphid pests and breed the trait into wheat suitable for African climates. The project is a partnership between Seed Co Ltd, Africa’s largest seed company, and Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from the BBSRC. This week scientists from Zimbabwe met colleagues in the UK to discuss progress.

The researchers are testing wheat varieties for resistance to two notorious pest aphid species. The Russian wheat aphid (Diuraphis noxia) is a destructive pest that causes severe damage to leaves, often killing the wheat plants they infest. The Bird cherry-oat aphid (Rhopalosiphum padi) causes less direct damage, but can infect plants with the harmful Barley yellow dwarf virus which stunts the growth of wheat plants. If resistance to these pests can be detected among the hundreds of wheat cultivars the scientists are testing, the trait could be transferred to create new varieties for smallholder farmers in Africa through breeding, which would offer better and more reliable yields.

Currently sub-Saharan Africa produces only around half of the wheat it consumes, causing a heavy demand for imports. Once created, the researchers plan to inform smallholder farmers of their aphid-resistant wheat through a programme of education and outreach, and by partnering with Seed Co Ltd, which produces seed aimed both at commercial and smallholder farmers in countries including Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Malawi. Ultimately, the improved wheat could reduce reliance on wheat imports and link farmers with high-value wheat markets, reducing poverty and hunger.

Dr Gia Aradottir, an entomologist at Rothamsted Research said: “This is a very exciting project for us as it has a strong potential for direct impact on farmer livelihood. We have had promising results in the project already and by working with wheat breeders and a seed company we could deliver crop protection directly to the farmer via the seed”.

Mr Tegwe Soko, Wheat Breeder (Group Wheat and Small Grains Breeding Programme lead) at Seed Co Ltd said: “The project has created an avenue that will compliment efforts towards breeding for pest resistance with the aim of producing aphid resistant wheat varieties that farmers can use sustainably for improved productivity”.

The project is being supported through the Innovate UK Agritech Catalyst scheme by the Department for International Development (“DFID”) through Innovate UK, the BBSRC and Seed Co Ltd.

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About Rothamsted Research

We are the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for over 170 years. Our mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

Our strength lies in the integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant, insect and soil science.
Rothamsted Research is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested £473M in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

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