, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 157-166

Defining selection criteria to improve yield under drought

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The many selection criteria that have been proposed to increase drought resistance of our crops have had little, if any, impact on improving crop yields in dry environments. There are several likely reasons for this lack of success. Some of these are: (i) criteria proposed have been related more to survival mechanisms under drought than to productivity, (ii) criteria are inappropriate to the target environment, and (iii) criteria are temporal and are therefore likely to have minimal impact on growth and yield over the entire lifecycle. Another important reason is that breeders have not been convinced the proposed criteria will be successful as they are too difficult to measure. On the other hand, empirical breeding programmes to improve yield under drought have been successful. Surprisingly, some of the greatest successes have been achieved by breeding in environments where water is non-limiting. This paper reviews breeding approaches to improve yield under drought. It focuses on critical factors that must be considered to identify likely plant attributes that can be targeted. These factors, their link with yield, the nature of the target environment, the level of organisation where the trait is expressed are discussed. Three quite different examples are given to emphasize the above considerations and which show substantial promise in targeting traits to improve yield under drought. They are drought at flowering, improving transpiration efficiency and improving early leaf area development.