Breeding better crops

Plant breeding has been practiced for thousands of years, since near the beginning of human civilization. It is a means to continually improve the seeds we use to grow crops that feed humanity, and can help achieve CIAT’s vision of a world free of hunger.

What we do: Delivering superior crop varieties

Over the past 50 years, CIAT scientists have built on the earliest farmers’ knowledge to better unlock the potential of plant genetics to develop improved crops. By identifying crops with desired traits such as better nutritional characteristics or greater tolerance to drought, breeders develop improved beans, rice, cassava, and forage varieties that are healthier, more resilient, and capable of producing greater yields.

To stay ahead of new threats, our researchers continue striving to provide farmers with the crop varieties they want and need.


A bowl of beans is the centerpiece of the daily diet of more than 400 million people in the tropics, providing protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and micronutrients.

With the aim of further enhancing the nutritional value of beans, CIAT scientists are using biofortification in an effort to raise the content of two critical micronutrients: iron and zinc.

In addition to biofortification, CIAT breeders also develop beans with other improved traits including: higher yielding, faster cooking, resistant to pests and diseases, tolerant to drought, heat, and low soil fertility, and well suited to market demands (seed color, size, etc.).


A root crop of tropical American origin, cassava (Manihot esculenta) has risen from relative obscurity in recent decades to become the world’s third most important source of dietary energy after maize and rice.

CIAT boosts the nutritional quality of cassava by breeding for high content of provitamin A carotenoids. Our scientists also work to improve cassava for starch (tapioca flour), higher-yields, and resistance to pests and diseases.

Tropical forages

Diverse tropical forage grasses and legumes, by providing a valuable source of livestock feed, can help farmers improve meat and milk production and raise incomes. Tropical forages are also a climate-smart option.

CIAT breeds tropical forage varieties with multi-dimensional benefits:

  • Higher land and animal productivity
  • Market-orientation for greater economic opportunities for the 600 million smallholder farmers who make a living from animal production
  • Better adapted to biotic and abiotic stresses
  • Climate friendly through mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions


While about 91 percent of the world’s rice production still came from Asia in 2000, Latin America and the Caribbean – where rice serves as a daily source of energy for many people – accounts for 3.8 percent of production.

Rice breeders at CIAT develop improved varieties for LAC that are:

  • Higher yielding
  • Drought tolerance
  • Improved water- and nutrient-use efficiency
  • Richer in zinc
  • Resistant to pests and diseases
  • Well suited to market demands


Biofortification, a term coined by CIAT scientist Steve Beebe in 2001, is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology.

Biofortification aims to increase nutrient levels in crops during plant growth rather than through manual means during processing of the crops. Biofortification may therefore present a way to reach populations where supplementation and conventional fortification activities may be difficult to implement and/or limited (WHO).

CIAT scientists focus on raising the content of critical micronutrients in three staple crops: beans, rice and cassava.

How we do it:

Plant breeding is accomplished through many different techniques ranging from simply selecting plants with desirable characteristics for propagation, to more complex molecular techniques.

New research and technology is making humankind’s never-ending quest to improve our food supply more efficient. To breed better crops, CIAT scientists use advanced techniques including: applied breeding and genetics; molecular biology; disease, insect and herbicide resistances; abiotic stress factors; molecular markers; tissue culture; gene isolation and genomics; quantitative genetics; phenomics; molecular mapping; and related biotechnology fields.

Every year we get better at identifying the specific genes responsible for traits that make crops more nutritious, heartier, tastier, or more resilient. However, the development phase of new crop varieties is still lengthy, and we strive to accelerate the process to realize more significant benefits for farmers.

We offer state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, access to research greenhouses, farms, and specialized equipment at CIAT’s headquarters in Colombia, and develop strong partnerships with research facilities in other countries – such as the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi and Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Sciences (VAAS) in Hanoi.

Joe Tohme, Director of the Agrobiodiversity Research Area at CIAT talks about the potential of gene editing in agriculture

The diversity that enables farmers and plant breeders to develop better crops

As the guardian of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of beans, cassava, and tropical forages, CIAT is fortunate to have ready access to crop diversity at our headquarters in Colombia. Through skillful use of these collections, scientists can develop new varieties that are resilient to flooding, drought, and extreme temperatures, making these collections an extremely valuable weapon in the fight against poverty and hunger. Crop diversity is fundamental to all of these potential solutions.

Meet CIAT’s plant breeders:

CIAT’s dedicated plant breeders develop new varieties that are productive, nutritious, and adapted to a changing climate. By combining field-based evaluation and selection with the latest genomics technologies, plant breeders provide the world with better food, feed, fiber, and renewable fuel, and contribute to a sustainable food future.

Bodo Raatz

Bean Breeder

Cécile Grenier

Rice Breeder

Claire Mukankusi

Bean Breeder

Hernan Ceballos

Cassava Breeder

John Miles

Tropical Forages Breeder

Maribel Cruz Gallego

Rice Breeder

Rowland Chirwa

Bean Breeder

Steve Beebe

Bean Breeder

Our impact:


Developed new heat-tolerant beans, which can handle an average temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 Fahrenheit), through “crosses” between the “common bean”—which includes pinto, white, black, and kidney beans—and the tepary bean, a hardy survivor cultivated since pre-Columbian times in an area that is now part of northern Mexico and the American southwest.

Average cassava yields have doubled since CIAT started working in Southeast Asia, largely through widespread adoption of improved varieties but also due to improvements in crop husbandry and market linkages.

In Latin America, high-quality Brachiaria grasses, many of them improved at CIAT, have been widely adopted and cover an area estimated at over 25 million hectares, generating large economic benefits.

Nearly 60% of all the improved rice varieties released in LAC are believed to contain germplasm developed by CIAT.


CIAT will partake in the new CGIAR Excel Breeding Platform to increase collaboration across the Centers.


Research updates

breeding | CIAT Blog Science to Cultivate Change


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Latest publications

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