Maize is the most important staple crop in the world.
Is drought-resilient maize an answer to pressure on African farmers through climate change? The Center for Development Research (ZEF) organised a panel of experts to address this topic in Bonn, Germany.
Maize is an important staple food crop in most of sub-Saharan Africa, and it is grown on around 33 million of the total 194 million hectares under cultivation in the region. However, El Niño and global warming have had a dramatic effect on farming in many areas. The 2015-2016 El Niño event was one of the strongest on record. Among the countries affected in Africa was Ethiopia, which saw its worst drought in decades. The country, which is the continent’s fifth-largest maize producer, suffered huge crop losses, and an estimated 1.35 million farmers were left without new seed.
Farmers Nuri Bekele, Tefera Tamirat & Melaka Bekele harvest drought tolerant maize in Ethiopia. Photo: P. Lowe/CIMMYT
Marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) is helping maize breeders develop higher yielding and drought-tolerant improved varieties faster than ever before, according to a recent study from scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center(CIMMYT).
“With conventional breeding, it often takes up to 7-8 years for varieties to reach farmers,” said Yoseph Beyene, a CIMMYT maize breeder working with the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) and one of the authors of the study. “With MARS, those varieties take only 5 years to reach farmers, and display greater genetic gain, even under drought conditions”
By Busani Bafana
Apolonia Marutsvaka shows off her drought-tolerant, heat stress maize cobs. Photo: Johnson Siamachira/CIMMYT.
Apolonia Marutsvaka looks triumphant as she shows off one of her three bags of gleaming white maize. She harvested the grain in the midst of a drought and sapping heat that charred many other types of crop.
The secret of her successful harvest is simple: A type of maize seed that has been bred to tolerate high temperatures.
“It has never been this hot, but (this) variety of maize performs well in the heat,” said the 62-year-old Marutsvaka. “I am preparing my maize field to plant it again.”
Marutsvaka is hopeful the new variety will continue to ensure her a harvest even as temperatures soar above 30 degrees Celsius here in Masvingo Province and across Zimbabwe.
“With consistently impressive harvests thanks to DT maize varieties, I’m always assured that my family will have enough food, and I can earn a decent income from selling some grain,” said Piri, a smallholder farmer in Petauke District, Zambia. Photo: CIMMYT/Rodney Lunduka.
Drought-related challenges in Africa call for proactive interventions rather than reactive ones. Every so often a drought hits, jolting the development community into action, and leading to the delivery of food aid to millions of people facing starvation — beneficial efforts in the short term, but futile for achieving lasting change.