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Stress-tolerant maize helps smallholder farmers cope with climate risks

“You’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding our future.” In a 2019 blog discussing the essential role the CGIAR System plays in feeding the world, Bill Gates highlighted the efforts of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to develop and spread the use of drought-tolerant and disease-resistant improved maize varieties, which he described as “a leading example of the amazing work the CGIAR System does to help smallholder farmers.”

These varieties are more necessary than ever before. Climate change is affecting food production in every corner of the globe and making it harder to meet rising global food demand.

“We will need CGIAR’s research to help supply farmers with a steady stream of climate-smart crop varieties,” said Gates, pointing to drought-tolerant maize as an example of an innovation helping smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.

Farmers are struggling to cope with increasing climate risks, such as more frequent and extreme droughts and flooding, and severe pest and disease outbreaks among crops and livestock. Rainfed, smallholder farming families in sub-Saharan Africa are disproportionately affected, as their livelihoods depend on unpredictable rainfall patterns. It is estimated that by 2030 drought and rising temperatures could render 40% of the continent’s maize-growing areas unsuitable for current varieties.

A farmer shows her harvest of stress-tolerant maize in rural Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, farmers in drought-stricken areas using drought-tolerant maize were able to harvest up to 600 kilograms more maize per hectare than those using conventional varieties

More than 200 million households in sub-Saharan Africa depend on maize for their livelihoods. However, maize productivity on the continent is currently the lowest in the world, and as weather patterns become more erratic, farmers are at greater risk of having smaller maize harvests — or sometimes no harvest at all.

In response to this challenge, CIMMYT has partnered with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and national partners in 12 sub-Saharan African countries under the Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project to develop over 200 new maize varieties capable of withstanding drought conditions. These varieties are expected to give farmers 25-30% greater yields under drought stress at the flowering stage, as well as help them fight devastating maize diseases.

So far, more than five million farmers across the region are benefitting from CGIAR-derived stress-tolerant maize varieties.

In Zimbabwe, for example, farmers in drought-stricken areas using drought-tolerant maize were able to harvest up to 600 kilograms more maize per hectare than those using conventional varieties. The additional harvest was enough to feed a family of six for nine months. For farming families who chose to sell their harvests, it was worth US$240 in extra income, giving them much-needed cash to send their children to school and meet other household needs.

Under the STMA project and the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE), CIMMYT and IITA are also supporting local and regional seed companies to produce and deploy quality seed of the stress-tolerant maize cultivars on a large scale.

Partners and funders

The STMA project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID. The CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) receives Windows 1 & 2 support from the governments of Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, France, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the World Bank.