Professor J. Witcombe. - Staff Profile

Professor John Witcombe

Professorial Fellow

Thoday Building Room 5


Tel: +44 (0)1248 382289


My research is focused on breeding new varieties for smallholder farmers in Asia and Africa

My current DFID-funded Innovate UK project (2016) with Dr Katherine Steele used next-generation sequencing to identify more than a million new selectable markers for breeders of South Asian rice. I am working with breeders in Nepal to use these markers to improve the disease resistance of Nepalese rice varieties.

2003 afghanistan







(Image camption: Field Work In Afghanistan)

In 2011-2014 through Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funding I advised the Program for African Seed Systems: this intervention changed national programmes in Mali and Burkina Faso to use population breeding to produce hybrids that have some genetic variability for disease resistance. Commercial production of these first pearl millet hybrids for Arica is beginning.

I have pioneered the approach of client-oriented breeding in which end users are consulted throughout the breeding process, selection is made in the target environment and careful screening of parents achieves outstanding levels of successful crosses compared to conventional programmes.

This method has been used to breed new varieties of rice, maize and pearl millet:

Two Ashoka rice varieties for India achieved the hard-to-get combination of drought tolerance, higher grain quality and higher yield. They provide vital food security in drought years filling the hunger gap with an early harvest. Seed has been available in the formal production chain since 2015 with an estimated cultivation area of 300,000 ha providing benefits of £12 M to poor smallholder farmers in eastern India.

Maize variety GM-6, is an open pollinated variety with very early maturity so it escapes drought when the monsoon rains finish early. It has superior grain quality and pest resistance. It presently accounts for nearly 100% of the certified seed production in Gujarat. It has improved the livelihoods of 300,000 of the poorest farm households in Gujarat and has been grown in a cumulative area of over 2 million ha.

The COB approach has been combined with DNA marker-assisted selection to aid identification of progeny carrying ‘difficult’ traits disease resistance (pearl millet “HHB-67 improved” that is grown on 500,000 ha each year in northern India) and drought resistance (deep rooted rice variety PY-84 that has greater yield under drought).

Pearl millet variety Okashana-1 (ICMV 88908) was bred by targeting farmers needs for early duration and large grains. In the 1990s it occupied 80% of the pearl millet in Namibia sometimes giving farmers five fold increases in yield when traditional later maturing varieties suffer badly from drought.  Because of its considerable advantages ICMV 88908 has the greatest spillover to other countries of any ICRISAT variety in any crop. As well as Namibia, it has been released in Malawi (in 1996 as ‘Nyankombo’) in Zimbabwe (in 1996) and in Botswana (in 1999 as ‘Bontle’) and it is popular in Tanzania.

Variety ICMV 88904, derived from the same composite that produced Okashana 1, was released in India as ICMV 221 and is particularly popular in Tamil Nadu. It is also widely grown in Kenya where it is marketed by the Western Seed Company. It was released in Eritrea in 2002 as ‘Kona’ and is also grown in Uganda and Ethiopia.