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MasAgro: facing the future, reaffirming farmer focus

One key reason why small-scale maize farmers—particularly those in Mexico—hold on to their native varieties is their strong fear of failed crops in difficult years, according to Bram Govaerts, head of the MasAgro component “Take it to the farmer.” “Agriculture is a system of risk, so we need to do whatever we can to help farmers reduce this risk and get stable yields,” Govaerts said.

This and farmers’ attachment to varieties with preferred taste and grain qualities were discussed during a 13 September 2011 presentation for CIMMYT staff at El Batán on the “Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture” (MasAgro) project. Launched in April 2011, funded by the Mexican government, and based on an initiative of Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries, and Food (SAGARPA) together with CIMMYT, the project supports Mexican farmers working in partnership with several organizations to increase maize and wheat productivity, obtain higher returns on harvests, and ensure the preceding does not contribute to climate change. Over its 10-year lifespan, MasAgro aims to raise annual maize production by 5-9 million tons in rainfed areas and increase wheat harvests by 350,000 tons each year.

Opening the meeting, CIMMYT Director General Thomas Lumpkin stressed the significance of MasAgro both for CIMMYT and Mexico, praised the excellent support from the Mexican government and SAGARPA, and referred to a recent statement by Mexican President Felipe Calderón that called MasAgro the most important public policy for agriculture of the current administration. Karen García, Executive Director of MasAgro, believes the project poses a unique challenge to CIMMYT and reflects the Center’s adaptability. “This is a large initiative that directly responds to key policy directions of the government of Mexico, CIMMYT’s host country,” she said.

Speakers at the event included Marianne Bänziger (Deputy Director General for Research and Partnerships), Scott Ferguson (Deputy Director General, Support Services), and Marc Rojas (leader of the MasAgro component International Maize Improvement Consortium). “MasAgro is the biggest project CIMMYT has ever had, but we also have other projects,” said Bänziger, “we are one family and we work together.” Govaerts said the integration of the project with other Mexican initiatives was strong and getting stronger.

The name “Take it to the Farmer” comes from Dr. Norman Borlaug’s suggestion regarding a new technology he was shown the day before he died. Work under this component brings together public and private organizations to increase maize and wheat productivity, obtain higher returns on yields, and strengthen local small- and medium-sized agribusinesses. The “International Maize Improvement Consortium” is helping local small- and intermediate-scale seed producers to make diverse maize varieties and hybrids available to Mexican farmers at affordable prices. At the event Gemma Molero (Postdoctoral Fellow, Wheat Physiology Program) presented the “Wheat Yield Consortium”, which constitutes Mexico’s contribution to an international consortium of public and private sector researchers in more than 30 countries who have come together to increase wheat’s yield potential by 50% over the next 20 years through improvements in photosynthetic efficiency and plant architecture. As part of the MasAgro component “Discovering the Genetic Diversity of Seed,”, presented by Peter Wenzl (Head, CRIL), scientists are applying cutting-edge technologies to study and classify the diversity in CIMMYT’s genetic resource collections and make the information widely available to breeders in Mexico and abroad.