Three decades of research into drought tolerant maize by CIMMYT and a very strong set of partnerships has made a difference in the lives of African farmers. That achievement has been recognized by the awarding to CIMMYT of the 2006 CGIAR King Baudouin Award.
It began with a small experiment to try to improve the lowland tropical maize population called Tuxpeno for drought tolerance in Mexico in the1970s. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) started to invest in more significant research around drought tolerant maize in 1986. In the mid-1990s, the focus of the work moved to Africa—to the most challenging maize growing environments world-wide: southern and eastern Africa, where maize is a source of food and livelihoods for some 250 million people.
Today, sufficient seed has been produced to plant over 2.5 million hectares of land in eastern and southern Africa with new varieties that produce more maize both when dry spells occur and under good conditions. The road in-between involved the building of a large partnership with donors, national agricultural research programs, extension programs, small-scale seed producers, community seed producers and individual farmers; developing new ways of screening germplasm in real world conditions; and enhancing farmer-participatory methods to select the best and disseminate the best.
CIMMYT and its partners employed novel methodologies in breeding that were pro-poor according to Marianne Bänziger, the director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program.
“Traditional varieties have been developed with fertilizer applied under good rainfall conditions. CIMMYT took a completely different route,” she says. “We took the varieties; we exposed thousands of them to very severe stress conditions—drought, low soil fertility. We selected the best. We brought them to farmers and farmers told us which ones they liked.”
The projects invested in over 25 fully-equipped managed-stress screening sites and more than 120 testing sites owned and operated by national programs. A network was established involving CIMMYT, public National Agricultural Research Systems (NARSs), and the private sector to systematically test new varieties and hybrids from all providers for the constraints most relevant to smallholder farmers in eastern and southern Africa. This network recently provided proof that the stress breeding approach works. In a simple comparison between all maize hybrids from CIMMYT’s stress breeding approach and a similar number of hybrids developed by reputable private companies using the traditional approaches—using 83 hybrids, 65 randomly-stressed locations across eastern and southern Africa, and 3 years of evaluation—the results demonstrated that, under production circumstances most similar to those of resource-poor farmers in Africa (that is, at yield levels of 1–5 tons per hectare), the CIMMYT varieties yielded on average 20% more in the most difficult conditions and 5% more under favorable conditions. Among these the best stress-tolerant hybrids increased yields as much as 100% under drought, showing the great potential contained in maize genetic resources.
The final selection was done through a participatory methodology called the “mother-baby” trial system, in which farmers managed some “baby” plots in their own fields while NGOs, researchers and extension staff conducted a “mother trial” in the center of their community. This way farmers could see how potential varieties actually performed under local conditions.
As a result, more than 50 open-pollinated and hybrid varieties have been disseminated to public and private partners, NARSs, NGOs and seed companies, for seed production and dissemination to farmers. “None of this success would have been possible without the collaboration of many dedicated researchers, NGO and extension staff from the public and private sector.” says Bänziger. “They were the ones evaluating varieties under diverse conditions with farmers. They also started to adopt the new breeding methods in their own programs, developing their own varieties, engaging in seed production and tackling the challenge of getting seed to farmers.”
The story is not finished. CIMMYT researchers are sure the genetic diversity in maize is sufficient to push the drought tolerance in new maize varieties significantly further. “Yield gains are such that with every year of research we can add another 100 kg of grain under drought,” says Bänziger. The greatest challenge is to incorporate these gains into adapted varieties and get the seed to the farmers who need it most—a tremendous task and opportunity given the looming threats of climate change.