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Nitrogen-use-efficient maize ready for release in Africa

August 1, 2013

Bish-croppedBig news for public and private maize breeders and seed providers in Africa: you can now test your lines and hybrids under controlled stress conditions that allow you to tell how they’ll perform when grown by farmers. The latest results from regional maize stress screening trials and other important topics formed the agenda of the annual meeting of the Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) project, which during 10-12 July 2013 drew more than 70 participants to its Nairobi venue, including representatives from CIMMYT, which leads the project,  key partners DuPont Pioneer, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council (ARC), from African seed companies, from organizations like One Acre Fund, and from project funder the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“There’s been great interest from private companies to test their germplasm in our regional trials,” said acting project lead and CIMMYT maize breeder Biswanath Das, who cited the project’s stress screening networks as an unprecedented achievement in the region. “The 2012-13 trials included 114 maize lines and hybrids from 13 partners, including 6 companies, that were tested at 40 locations region-wide. Trial environments include nitrogen-depleted soils and controlled drought stress, closely replicating actual farm conditions.”

After water, nitrogen is the single most important input for maize production; lack of it is the principal constraint to cereal yields in Africa, in areas with adequate rainfall. An illustration of that importance, this photo shows the very different response of the same maize variety to zero versus 80 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer on an experiment station plot.

After water, nitrogen is the single most important input for maize production; lack of it is the principal constraint to cereal yields in Africa, in areas with adequate rainfall. An illustration of that importance, this photo shows the very different response of the same maize variety to zero versus 80 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer on an experiment station plot.

In the most recent results, yields of elite hybrids from the project match or marginally surpass those of the best widely-grown commercial hybrids in favorable circumstances, while significantly out-yielding them under drought and low-nitrogen conditions, according to trial coordinator and CIMMYT breeder Amsal Tarekegne. “We expect that, through this network, all seed available to farmers will eventually feature higher yields under all conditions that farmers face.”

Launched in February 2010, IMAS is developing maize varieties that better capture the small amount of fertilizer African farmers can afford, and that use the nitrogen more efficiently to produce grain. The project is using molecular markers and transgenic approaches to augment conventional breeding. The varieties are Africa-adapted and will feature added traits like drought tolerance, disease resistance, and preferred grain quality.

Conventionally bred IMAS-derived maize seed is near ready for national testing, certification, and release. Discussions and efforts now center around how best to spread awareness among seed providers and farmers and how to market seed. Meeting participants visited several Kenya field sites, including KARI’s Kiboko research station, where in partnership with KARI, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and CIMMYT are supporting construction of a maize doubled haploid breeding facility expected to be operational in late 2013. Recently recruited CIMMYT molecular geneticist Michael Olsen, who is taking up coordination of IMAS, thanked everyone for the warm welcome he’d received. “I’m really excited about working in this project,” he said. “The energy coming from the meeting was tremendous.”

Project oversight committee members, Zimbabwean researcher Idah Sithole-Niang and retired maize physiologist Greg Edmeades, as well as Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program officer Gary Atlin, expressed their pleasure at the progress to date. “Low productivity due to poor soil fertility is the greatest challenge to African agriculture,” said Atlin. “Breeding is one way to address this. Thanks for your superb efforts.”


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