Making Agri-food Systems More Resilient

Innovation in agriculture is key to allowing farmers to maintain and increase productivity while reducing emissions, halting biodiversity loss, and improving rural community livelihoods.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), headquartered in El Batán, Mexico, researches and develops better varieties of wheat and maize that play an important role in transforming food systems. They use state-of-the-art plant science breeding techniques to enhance these crops so that farmers can produce more nutritious food from fewer resources and under less predictable growing conditions.

We spoke with Dr. Martin Kropff,  newly appointed global director of resilient agri-food systems of CGIAR, to tell us about their extraordinary work. He describes how plant science contributes to making these crops more resilient and helps improve their ability to deliver more sustainable food systems. (Portions of this interview have been cut for brevity.)

Tell us about CIMMYT. What is the breadth of its research and outreach?

CIMMYT leads maize and wheat research for food systems that deliver affordable, sufficient and healthy diets produced within planetary boundaries. We focus on the developing world where agri-food systems are vulnerable, and wheat- and maize-based systems form the major part of the diets. We do this through the application of high-quality science and collaboration with hundreds of partners across the globe, including researchers at national agricultural research systems, small- and medium-sized seed companies, large agri-food companies, and of course, farmers.

Why are wheat and maize important to the communities that grow them around the world?

Maize and wheat are historically the bedrock of civilization. Together with rice, human beings have been eating these crops since the dawn of agriculture. So, they are important to the communities that grow them, not only as the source of their food security and incomes, but also for historical and cultural reasons.

But more than that, maize and wheat are incredibly important because they are now, and will continue to be, the main source of nutrition, food security and income for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations.

  • Maize is a staple food for 900 million people living on less than U.S. $2 a day and the most important food crop in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Wheat contributes 20 percent of the protein in diets in developing countries, second only to rice in importance for daily energy.

Maize and wheat are affordable, accessible, climate-resilient and already widely eaten by the world’s most vulnerable populations. They are storable and can be processed for a very wide range of food products that are highly appreciated by people across the globe.

They are financially viable options for farmers to grow and consume themselves or sell. There will always be demand and a market for these crops.

Why is it important to continuously research maize and wheat and ensure that plant science innovations are accessible to all farmers, especially smallholders who may not gain access as quickly as other farmers?

The 500 million smallholders around the globe are the ones that feed the most people. And yet somehow, they are the ones that are often neglected and left to their own devices. Maize and wheat are nutritious and financially smart crops to grow, but as any crop, they are susceptible to climate change effects.

This means that crops and farming practices need to constantly adapt and improve to meet today’s challenges, such as climate change, while also ensuring that these improvements reach these vulnerable people. We need to aim to shrink the number of people living in poverty and increase their resilience. This is where CIMMYT and CGIAR come in.

The impact of continuously developing new and better varieties (be it for resistance, quality, etc.) has led to a major global impact. The return on investment is very high. For example, the impact of maize breeding in Africa is estimated at more than U.S. $1 billion per year, and for wheat, globally, at U.S. $3.5 billion per year.

For the last 50 years, CGIAR has been contributing critical science to support food security and the development of successful and inclusive agricultural economies. Today’s context requires a refreshed ‘offer’.

This is why CGIAR is undergoing a significant transformation. It needs to become an organization that produces future-forward solutions and innovations to deliver multiple benefits and transformative change for those who need it the most.

Tell us about CIMMYT’s 2017-2022 strategic plan, which calls for “more resilient agri-food systems.” How can plant science support these systems?

CIMMYT’s strategy sets out an integrated approach of excellence in science and impact through partnerships with a strong emphasis on capacity development to fulfill our mission to improve livelihoods through maize and wheat science. In order to feed the world’s anticipated 9.1 billion people by 2050, plant science needs investment to continue playing its essential role in helping to make agri-food systems more resilient. CIMMYT’s researchers, for example, develop and share drought-tolerant crop varieties, pest and disease management best practices, digital nutrient management tools, and other technologies that encourage more efficient use of water, soil and nutrients.

What breeding impact has science had on smallholder farmers worldwide? How has this strengthened the communities they both live in and support?

Farmers are our partners; we listen to their knowledge and needs and respond with the latest developments and insights from genomics, precision agriculture, advanced breeding, agronomy and socioeconomics. Great science can have great impact.

In Ethiopia, the largest producer of wheat in sub-Saharan Africa, a recent study showed that wheat varieties developed using germplasm from CIMMYT covered 87 percent of the wheat area surveyed. Four of the top varieties sown were recent rust-resistant varieties developed through the breeding programs of the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research and CIMMYT. And estimates show that farmers gained an extra U.S. $50 million in extra production thanks to these recent, CIMMYT-derived varieties.

Half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa consumes maize but it is susceptible to climate stressors like heat and drought. A decade ago, working with farmers and other partners in Zimbabwe, we introduced and promoted numerous drought-tolerant maize varieties. Today, households that grow these varieties can harvest over 600 kilograms more maize per hectare compared to households that choose other varieties. This translates into nine months worth of additional food security at no additional cost. In recent years, across South and East Africa, 5 million hectares have been planted with drought-tolerant maize and the number keeps growing.

CIMMYT’s website has many more success stories to share.

How will climate change continue to threaten maize and wheat crops around the world? How can CIMMYT’s research help mitigate that impact?

It is a fact that the effects of climate change are a constant and growing threat to wheat and maize production in Africa and South Asia, where both population and hunger are still increasing. The related drought, heat, floods and the rapid spread of pests and diseases are expected to worsen unless we fundamentally change how we do many things, including the actions we take along the whole food value chain.

Seventy percent of CIMMYT’s work relates to climate change adaptation and mitigation. We work toward sustainable maize- and wheat-based systems to curb the negative environmental impacts of intensive farming and to strengthen farmers’ resilience in the face of climate change.

The rice-wheat rotation of the Indo-Gangetic plains feeds South Asia. But it is becoming unsustainable. Farmers’ overuse of water and agro-chemicals and burning of crop residues are leading to widespread air pollution. If the way people grow crops there does not change, the region will face complex agricultural sustainability challenges and severe health problems.

Our scientists are helping farmers to integrate a sustainable intensification practice called conservation agriculture, together with adapted crop varieties (short-duration rice and wheat) and affordable mechanization so that the wheat can be directly seeded in the rice stubble, thus cutting out the need to burn the stubble to plant the next crops.

Conservation agriculture consists of three principles: minimum tillage, soil cover and diversification. These are the foundation of an efficient and resilient production system.

CIMMYT’s research is mitigating the impact of climate change through the development and joint release of climate-resilient varieties and by identifying win-win farming practices that conserve resources, increase incomes, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We always say that improved crops don’t work without good agronomy — and that means climate-smart agriculture. In the new ‘One CGIAR,’ we will develop more of such integrated solutions.