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Innovation in Seed Science Helping Africa’s Farmers Overcome Infertile Soils
|The Global Harvest Initiative’s 2015 Global Agricultural Productivity Report®: Building Sustainable Breadbaskets describes the “Need for Seeds” in Zambia and how DuPont pioneer’s ZAMSAP partnership is increasing women farmers’ access to improved maize seed. (Pages 64, 70)|
|By Jim Gaffney,
Global Biotech and Regulatory Affairs Leader
As a former farm kid (from Minnesota) and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (from Cameroon), I’ve always been passionate about agriculture and especially about agriculture in Africa. Hundreds of millions of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are operating at very small scales – cultivating less than one hectare of land. These farmers are struggling in a climate of increasing population pressure, chronic food insecurity and malnutrition, low levels of agricultural productivity, rapid natural-resource degradation, and more frequent and extreme weather events. Without access to additional agronomic knowledge, high-quality seeds and fertilizer to increase their productivity, African farmers will only be able to meet 14 percent of the region’s food demand in 2030.
Nitrogen: An Essential Ingredient for Healthy, Productive Crops
The major challenge to crop production in Africa is low-fertility soil with poor nitrogen-supplying capacity, particularly following periods of drought. Most of the soils in sub-Saharan Africa are nitrogen-deficient – a critical constraint to maize yields in Africa, causing yield losses of more than 25 percent. Farmers in Africa typically apply less than one-tenth the amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied in other parts of the tropics. Furthermore, less than half of the fertilizer they apply is captured by the crop; the rest is leached deep into the soil where plants cannot recover it or is otherwise lost. Smallholder farmers in Africa need access to inputs – including quality seeds and fertilizer – to help them remain productive under the tough environmental conditions in which they operate, such as low-nitrogen soils.
Improved Seeds as a Solution for Nitrogen-Deficient Soils
Nitrogen use-efficient (NUE) maize is one technology that can help farmers utilize small amounts of fertilizer more efficiently. The Improved Maize for African Soil (IMAS) initiative was established in 2008 to help improve food security and livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa by developing new maize seed varieties that use available nitrogen (whether in soil or limited fertilizer application) more efficiently. IMAS is a public-private collaboration that includes national research organizations such as Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), the Agriculture Research Center (ARC) in South Africa and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) as well as DuPont Pioneer.
It is challenging to develop and deliver good hybrid seeds to smallholder farmers. That’s where IMAS plays an important role. Using a combination of improved modern plant breeding strategies, and biotechnology in the future, a steady pipeline of NUE hybrids developed through IMAS will be available to private and public organizations. Each newly developed hybrid is tested in multiple locations, and only the best hybrids advance, guaranteeing that the hybrid is suitable for the environment in which it will be released.
Steady changes in agricultural productivity have serious potential to move the continent forward – from greater prosperity and environmental gains to improvements in food security, nutrition and health. You don’t have to be a farm kid or Peace Corps Volunteer to appreciate that kind of collaboration.