With a maize called “camel”, an old investment pays off

Woman with maize
Tanzanian farmer Valeria Pantaleo credits her bountiful harvest to a drought-tolerant maize variety known locally as “camel”. Photo: Brenda Wawa/CIMMYT

Valeria Pantaleo can hardly believe her luck.

Despite poor rains in 2015, the 47-year-old farmer and mother of four from Olkalili village, northern Tanzania, harvested enough grain from a 0.5-hectare plot to feed her family. There was even some left over to sell to buy critical farm equipment.

“I got so much harvest and yet I planted this seed very late and with no fertilizer,” said Pantaleo. “I finally managed to buy a calf to replace my two oxen that died at the beginning of the year.” 

A maize called “camel”

The secret to Pantaleo’s bountiful harvest is a maize variety called “camel”. This hardy hybrid is the result of decades of scientific study made possible through a long-term partnership in support of food security.

Highlights

  • In the early 1990s, UNDP began funding research on a methodology to breed resilient maize for farmers in drought-prone tropical areas.
  • Scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) selected maize lines that survive and yield grain under controlled drought or low soil nitrogen on experimental plots.
  • The Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project was responsible for the development and release of more than 200 drought-tolerant varieties.
  • Additional funding for this work was provided by: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany (GTZ); Howard G. Buffett Foundation; International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA); Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC); UK Department for International Development; US Agency for International Development (USAID).

In the early 1990s, before climate change caught popular attention, UNDP provided funding for research by an international team of scientists in Mexico on how to breed resilient maize for farmers in drought-prone tropical areas. 

Fast forward several decades and that scientific concept is now reality. In 2016 more than 2 million farmers are acquiring and growing drought-tolerant varieties from this research in 13 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Through informal seed exchanges, it is likely that resilient varieties have spread even further in a region where maize, the number-one food crop, frequently fails under erratic rainfall and lethal droughts. 

Survival of the fittest

The core methodology the scientists used was to select maize lines that survive and yield grain under controlled drought or low soil nitrogen on experimental plots. The process was developed at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a Mexico-based research and training organization, as part of a UNDP-funded project from 1990 to 1996. 

The methodology proved effective for imparting tolerance in maize to both dry conditions during flowering and grain-filling, when the plant is particularly sensitive to stress, and to the nitrogen-depleted soils typical of small-scale farms in the tropics.

When CIMMYT championed the new approach in Africa, UNDP again provided key funding for a project to develop and spread maize varieties that were tolerant to drought and low-nitrogen soils. Developed during the early to mid-2000s for East, Central and West Africa, the new varieties would also have to resist insect pests and the deadly maize parasite Striga. With the participation of regional associations, national research programmes, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the “Africa Maize Stress” initiative was called a model for similar projects in Africa. 

That effort, along with parallel work in southern Africa, evolved into the widely-heralded Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project, led by CIMMYT and IITA from 2007 to 2015. Through work with dozens of national partners and private companies, DTMA was responsible for the development and release of more than 200 drought-tolerant varieties. 

One of these is HB513, the variety planted by Pantaleo and other famers in Tanzania. The seed is known locally as “ngamia”, Kiswahili for “camel”, in recognition of its resilience under dry conditions.

“Since it was my first time to use it, and given that the rains were really low, I did not expect much,” Valeria recalls. But HB513 is both drought-tolerant and nitrogen-use efficient. It not only produces greater yields during times of moderate drought, but also makes efficient use of the small amount of nitrogen in the soil.

A new phase of the DTMA project will expand the reach of drought-tolerant maize, producing by 2019 as much as 68,000 tons of certified seed annually for use by approximately 5.8 million households and benefitting more than 30 million people.

Maize stress breeding goes global

Selecting for tolerance under controlled moisture stress has proven so successful that it is now a standard component of maize breeding programmes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, according to Greg Edmeades, a retired maize physiologist who led CIMMYT’s work to develop stress-breeding approaches during the 1980s and 1990s.  

“The long pursuit of drought tolerance in maize shows how successful research-for-development demands doggedness and enduring donor support,” said Edmeades, who joined CIMMYT as a post-doctoral researcher in 1976. “This was a pivotal investment by UNDP, and they showed a high level of trust in us. As can be seen, other donors and partners have helped greatly to amplify the impact of that initial investment.”

This short history of drought tolerant breeding for tropical maize was drafted by CIMMYT, in honour of UNDP and CIMMYT’s 50th anniversary observations, which coincide in 2016. To read the version published by CIMMYT, click here.

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