Climate change research wins PhD student prize

Published Thursday, 7th November 2019 in Study at SRUC news

Climate change research wins phd student prize
Martha Dellar presenting her research about the impact of changing CO2 concentrations, air temperature and rainfall on grasslands in five areas of Europe

A postgraduate student at Scotland’s Rural College has won a prize for her research looking at the effects of climate change on European grassland yields. 

Martha Dellar won the Scotia Agricultural Club student prize for her research into the impact of changing CO2 concentrations, air temperature and rainfall on grasslands in five areas of Europe.

Martha, a final-year postgraduate student at SRUC and the University of Edinburgh,  studied data from 90 experimental sites in Alpine, Atlantic, Continental, Northern and Southern regions in Europe.

Looking at both mid-range and more extreme climate change scenarios, where temperatures in Europe would rise by between 4°C and 7°C and rainfall would change by 20-30 per cent, she found that the more extreme the change, the harder it was to predict what would happen – particularly in the Southern region.

“It’s important that we understand how grasslands are likely to respond to these changes, so that farmers can be prepared and ensure that there is enough grass available for grazing livestock,” she said.

“The results for the Alpine, Atlantic, Continental and Northern regions are all very similar. These are areas which are benefitting from the increasing temperatures and high CO2 concentrations.

“For the Southern region, yields could go up or down. This is an area which already experiences quite high temperatures and as those temperatures increase further, that could be detrimental to plant life. It’s also an area which is expected to become a lot drier in future.

“On the other hand, plants in this region are still benefitting from high CO2 concentrations, which allow them to photosynthesise more, and thus grow more.

“Overall, the results are good for grazing livestock. In most areas, there will be more grass for them to eat, but we need to remember that this isn’t the whole story.

“We need to account for the change in the nutritional quality of the grass, as well as the changes to growing seasons and the increasing high frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.”

SRUC PhD student Aluna Chawala, who has been investigating famer-led breeding goals and strategies in Sub-Saharan Africa – using his home country of Tanzania as a case study – was shortlisted for the prize.

His research has found that while smallholder farming systems contribute about 80 per cent of milk production in Tanzania, key decisions about animal improvements are made by the Government or are project-driven, often short-term, with the main focus on upgrading indigenous breeds.

“A mismatch between what farmers want and is appropriate in the respective production environment, and Government priorities, has led to non-sustainable breeding programmes,” he said.

“The results of my research so far have shown that farmer-led breeding goals – or a bottom-up approach – is possible in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Farmer-preferred traits include high milk yield, good fertility, easy temperament, ability to utilise local feed resources and disease resistance.  We have demonstrated the value of including these traits in the selection of imported genetic material, compared to selection based on the circumstances of the exporting country. Animals imported based on what farmers want can have a significant impact in terms of productivity.”

The competition was open to postgraduate students in Scotland studying agriculture or related subjects.

Students were asked to submit a three-minute video about their research, which was judged on the clarity of presentation and rationale for the work; significance and rigour of the work presented; and how convincing the conclusions were.

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