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Low-cost drought and low nitrogen-tolerant maize hybrids for food security in South Africa

March 2015

MARY JAMES, ARC-Grain Crops Institute

South Africa, in general, is not suitable for crop production as only 13% of the country is arable due to low rainfall and poor soils. Maize yields obtained by smallholder farmers are very low because their crops are often subjected to moisture stress and they use very little fertiliser due to lack of financial resources.

Because of limited water resources, only an estimated 10% of the maize crop is grown under irrigation (mostly by large-scale commercial producers). Climate change is predicted to worsen the situation with more variable rainfall and above-average temperatures. Identifying ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change are fundamental to realising food security and improved livelihoods in South Africa and on the rest of the continent.

To address these challenges, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) is participating in two public-private partnerships namely the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project and the Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) project. The WEMA project is aimed at developing and deploying drought-tolerant maize hybrids royalty-free to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The WEMA project is co-ordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and involves national agricultural research systems (NARS) in five countries (Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda).

The ARC in South Africa, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and a private seed company, Monsanto, are actively involved in this project which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G Buffett Foundation and USAID. WEMA’s project is currently in Phase II (2013 to 2017). Two conventional drought-tolerant maize hybrids with 20% to 30% higher yield under moderate drought conditions. The low-cost hybrids will be available under the trade name Drought TEGOTM, with TEGO being the Latin word for shield.

In addition to conventional hybrids, more robust, high yielding GM hybrids with drought tolerance and insect resistance transgenes are expected to be released during 2017. Monsanto donated both the drought tolerance (MON 87460) and insect resistance (MON 89034) transgenes to the WEMA project in South Africa. MON 810 was donated to the other four WEMA countries. There will be no technology fee for these two traits for smallholder farmers and therefore the seed price will be quite affordable.

The IMAS project is aimed at developing and deploying nitrogen-use efficient (fertiliser-friendly) conventional and GM maize hybrids that give at least 25% yield advantage with the same amount of fertiliser application. The project partners are ARC, CIMMYT, DuPont Pioneer and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and it is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and USAID. The project is currently in its sixth year.

Significant progress has been made by the ARC and its partners in the first years of the IMAS project. The IMAS project has the largest nitrogen-stress testing network in the world with sites situated in, among others, South Africa (Cedara, Potchefstroom and Taung), Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Zambia.

imageThe ARC plans to submit applications to DAFF for the registration of three “fertiliser-friendly” (low nitrogen-tolerant), conventional maize hybrids. Thereafter, an additional two to four new hybrids are expected to be released and registered annually. Pioneer donated transgenes for low nitrogen tolerance and the resultant GM hybrids will be deployed royalty-free to smallholder farmers. Regulated GM trials for low nitrogen tolerance are expected to begin in 2015/2016.

Seed of the drought and low nitrogen-tolerant maize hybrids will be produced and marketed by local seed companies. The ARC-GCI can be contacted for more information on the abovementioned projects, at 018 299 6100.

Publication: March 2015

Section: Focus on