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.
Unprecedented droughts have hit Uganda’s farmers hard in recent years, affecting household income and food security by drastically cutting maize yields, a staple crop in the country. In 2016, at least 1.3 million people in Uganda faced hunger and urgently needed food aid after a dry spell decimated harvests, leaving some with less than one meal per day. When MLN, a maize disease with the ability to cause extreme or complete crop loss in maize, arrived in Uganda in 2013, farmers needed a variety that could cope.
Women and youth help lead efforts to adopt climate-friendly farming and safeguard indigenous maize yields
Farmers walk through a field that has been cleared by slash and burn agriculture in the Yucatan peninsula. Photo: Maria Boa/ CIMMYT
The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico has been hard hit by drought and extreme weather events related to climate change in recent years, exacerbating local poverty and food insecurity. In addition, slash-and-burn agriculture techniques have led to environmental degradation and contribute to climate change. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is working to help indigenous Mayan farming families in the Yucatan peninsula adapt to and mitigate climate change, increasing maize yields and food security while minimizing negative environmental impact. This comes as world leaders mull a crucial decision on agriculture at the UN Climate talks in Bonn, a decision that could support farmers everywhere to take similar actions.