Thursday, February 18, 2021

Time to Change Farming

 Farmers across Africa understand that the climate crisis is affecting their harvests and their “daily bread”. In sub-Saharan Africa, growing numbers of people are chronically undernourished, with over 21 percent of the population suffering from severe food insecurity.

 African smallholder farmers have no choice but to adapt to climate change: 2020 was the second hottest year on record, while prolonged droughts and explosive floods are directly threatening the livelihoods of millions. By the 2030s, lack of rainfall and rising temperatures could render 40 percent of Africa’s maize-growing area unsuitable for climate-vulnerable varieties grown by farmers, while maize remains the preferred and affordable staple food for millions of Africans who survive on less than a few dollars of income a day.

 For farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, especially smallholders, this involves producing improved crop varieties that are not only high-yielding but also tolerant to drought and heat, resistant to diseases and insect pests, and can contribute to minimizing the risk of farming under rainfed conditions.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) are the two CGIAR research centers undertaking innovative maize research and development work in the stress-prone environments of Africa. Successful development of improved climate-adaptive maize varieties for sub-Saharan Africa has been spearheaded by these two CGIAR centers that implemented joint projects such as the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) and Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) in partnership with an array of national and private sector partners in the major maize-producing countries in Eastern, Southern, and West Africa. Under the 10-year DTMA initiative, about 160 affordable and scalable maize varieties were released.

High-yielding, multiple stress-tolerant, maize varieties using CIMMYT/IITA maize germplasm released after 2007 (the year the DTMA project was started) are estimated to be grown on 5 million hectares in 2020 in sub-Saharan Africa. The adoption of drought-tolerant (DT) maize varieties helped lift millions of people above the poverty line across the continent. For example, in drought-prone southern Zimbabwe, farmers using DT varieties in dry years were able to harvest up to 600 kilograms more maize per hectare—enough for nine months for an average family of six—than farmers who sowed conventional varieties.

The STMA project that followed DTMA also operated in sub-Saharan Africa, where 176 million people depend on maize for nutrition and economic well-being. The project, which ended in 2020, and followed by a new project called Accelerating Genetic Gains for Maize and Wheat Improvement (AGG), developed new maize varieties that can be successfully grown under drought, sub-optimal soil fertility, heat stress, and diseases and pests. In 2020, CGIAR-related stress-tolerant maize varieties were estimated to be grown on over 5 million hectares, benefiting over 8.6 million smallholder farmers in 13 countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

In Kenya, farmers with the new maize varieties are harvesting 20 to 30 percent more grain than farmers without drought-tolerant seeds. In Zambia, a study by CIMMYT and the Center for Development Research has shown that adopting drought-tolerant maize can increase yields by 38 percent and reduce the risks of crop failure by 36 percent, even though three-quarters of the farmers in the study had experienced drought during the survey.

Without more science-based interventions to align agriculture with climate targets, the number of undernourished people around the world could exceed 840 million by 2030.

African farmers need to adapt quickly to rising temperatures, drawn-out droughts and sharp, devastating floods. With higher-yielding, multiple stress tolerant maize varieties, smallholder farmers have the opportunity to not only combat climatic variabilities, diseases and pests, but can also effectively diversify their farms. This will enable them in turn to have better adaptation to the changing climates and access to well-balanced and affordable diets. As climate change intensifies, so should agricultural innovations. It is time for a “business unusual” approach.

Successful Crop Innovation Is Mitigating Climate Crisis Impact in Africa | Inter Press Service (

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