Over 200 million households in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)
depend on maize for food security and their well-being, yet maize yields in
this region are very low compared to other parts of the world. Maize farmers
face drought and other climate stresses, emerging pests and diseases, low soil
fertility. The slow adoption of new stress tolerant varieties means farmers are
unable to reach their yield potential.
The Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project funded
by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID) aims to develop in a cost-effective way
multiple stress tolerant varieties, and through partnerships with local public
and private seed sector, make these improved seeds available at scale in SSA.
Since 1900, more than 2 billion people have been affected by drought worldwide, according to the FAO. Drought affects crops by limiting the amount of water available for optimal growth and development, thereby lowering productivity. It is one of the major abiotic stresses responsible for variability in crop yield, driving significant economic, environmental and social impacts.
A new technical manual, “Management of drought stress in field phenotyping,” provides a quantitative approach to drought stress phenotyping in crops that will help to ensure drought screening trials yield accurate and precise data for use by breeding programs. Phenotyping is a procedure vital to the success of crop breeding programs that involves physical assessment of plants for desired traits.
Jie Xu received the 2018 MAIZE-Asia Youth Innovators Award from the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) for her work on drought stress in maize root systems. Her work seeks to understand the genetic basis of plant adaptation to drought with a view to applying the findings to breeding drought-tolerant maize. Originally from Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, China, she is an Associate Professor at Sichuan Agricultural University. In a recent interview, she discussed the challenges and opportunities facing maize in Asia, as well as the importance of involving young women in agriculture and maize-based systems.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in maize-based systems?
I was born in the western rural area of China, where maize is widely cultivated, being one of our favorite crops. When I was a student in Sichuan Agricultural University, I joined the maize research institute for my bachelor’s degree in 2006 and began my maize drought tolerance research under the guidance of my mentor, Prof. Tingzhao Rong. Drought tolerance is a very complex trait – it takes us years to screen the typical tolerant/sensitive inbred lines and construct the suitable research populations.By studying the maize inbred lines, which exhibit different levels of drought tolerance, we explore their genome and transcriptome variations to understand the genetic basis of plant adaptation to drought. This knowledge can then be applied to breeding drought-tolerant maize. However, the more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know and just how complex the drought-tolerance trait is.
Over two billion people across the world suffer from hidden hunger, the consumption of a sufficient number of calories, but still lacking essential nutrients such as vitamin A, iron or zinc. This can lead to severe health damage, blindness, or even death, particularly among children under the age of five. Furthermore, a recent FAO report estimates the number of undernourished people worldwide at over 800 million, with severe food insecurity and undernourishment increasing in almost all sub-regions of Africa, as well as across South America.