Crop innovation: Mitigating the impact of the climate crisis in Africa

5 March 2021

Adopting drought-tolerant (DT) maize varieties has helped lift millions of people above Africa’s poverty line. In his recently launched book, How to avoid a climate disaster: The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need, Bill Gates mentioned this innovation, singling out CGIAR as being “at the forefront of supporting the world to feed itself through research including developing improved higher-yielding varieties of important staples such as maize and rice.”

A recently-published op-ed by IITA Director General, Nteranya Sanginga and International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Director General, Martin Kropff, talks about CGIAR centers’ investment in long-term breeding to increase genetic gains in a vital food crop like maize using many new tools and technologies.

Crop innovation: Mitigating the impact of the climate crisis in Africa
Excited farmers with improved maize varieties.

Sanginga and Kropff make a case for increasing investments in crop improvement and seed systems innovation to tackle the climate variability crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. They contend that “It is not enough to lower carbon emissions. African farmers need to adapt quickly to rising temperatures, drawn-out droughts, and sharp, devastating floods.” They note that higher yielding, multiple-stress-tolerant maize varieties allow smallholder farmers the opportunity not only to combat climatic variabilities, diseases, and pests but also effectively diversify their farms. “This will enable them in turn to have a better adaptation to the changing climates and access to well-balanced and affordable diets,” they continue.

CGIAR has led technological innovation and deployment to transform food systems for many decades, with two centers, IITA and CIMMYT, spearheading innovative maize research and development work in Africa’s stress-prone environments and successfully developing improved climate-adaptive maize varieties for sub-Saharan Africa through joint projects such as the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) and Stress Tolerant Maize for frica (STMA) in partnership with diverse national and private sector partners in the major maize producing countries in Eastern, Southern, and West Africa.

Crop innovation: Mitigating the impact of the climate crisis in Africa
Maize accounts for 40% of cereal production in sub-Saharan Africa.

The 10-year DTMA initiative, which began in 2007, has overseen the release of about 160 affordable and scalable maize varieties. Beyond climate-adaptation, both CIMMYT and IITA have developed maize varieties biofortified with provitamin A, as vitamin A deficiency is highly prevalent in populations across sub-Saharan Africa. Developed in partnership with HarvestPlus, these biofortified maize varieties are deployed in targeted countries in sub-Saharan Africa in collaboration with national programs and seed company partners.

The authors thanked the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for generously supporting long-running research. They said, “Bill Gates, who recognizes the essential role of CGIAR in ‘feeding our future’, also acknowledges that current levels of investment do not even amount to half of what is needed.”

The authors emphasized the need for expanded investments in maize breeding and seed system innovations to undergird climate resilience and provide food and nutritional security to millions of maize-dependent and resource-constrained smallholders and consumers in sub-Saharan Africa. They called for faster deployment of scientific innovations in food, land, and water systems at a larger scale and reduced cost, having a more significant impact where they are needed the most.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the CGIAR has unveiled its roadmap for a new 10-year strategy at the online 2021 Climate Adaptation Summit in January. The new sustainable research strategy puts climate change at the heart of its mission, emphasizing the realignment of food systems worldwide, targeting five impact areas: nutrition, poverty, inclusivity, climate adaptation and mitigation, and environmental health.

Through food system transformation, resilient agri-food systems, and genetic innovations, CGIAR’s ambition is to meet and exceed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for a concerted global effort to radically realign food systems to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030.

Read the full op-ed here: Successful Crop Innovation Is Mitigating Climate Crisis Impact in Africa | Inter Press Service (