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March 01, 2009

Gates Foundation to fund $47m anti-drought GM maize study

by Halima Abdallah

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G Buffett Foundation are to sponsor a five-country study on a drought-resistant maize variety to a tune of $47 million.

The five-year research programme, to be carried out through the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, will kick off in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique and Uganda under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) project in June. Wema is a public /private partnership led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.

The first batch of conventional varieties developed by Wema should be available after six to seven years of research, while transgenetic drought-tolerant maize hybrids are expected to be available in 10 years’ time.It is estimated that maize products developed over the next 10 years could increase yields by 20 to 35 per cent under moderate drought compared with current varieties. This should translate into an additional two million tonnes of maize during drought years, capable of feeding about 21 million people.

The Maize and Wheat Centre will conventionally develop, drought-tolerant high-yielding maize varieties that adapt to African conditions. It will also provide expertise in conventional breeding and testing for drought tolerance, while Monsanto will provide proprietary germplasm, advanced breeding tools expertise and drought tolerant transgenes. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation will be in charge of any drought tolerant maize variety developed through this project. The foundation will identify local seed multipliers to make the seed available to smallholder African farmers at the regular price of maize seed without royalty.

Farmers will also have the right to keep their harvested maize for replanting if they wish. During the research, the experts will also carry out soil analysis and explore irrigation alternatives. A separate study on pest-resistant maize variety is going on in Kenya. In addition to planting drought-resistant varieties, the farmers will also use fertilisers to improve their yield. They will be encouraged to train in pest control and disease management and access markets to sell their surplus.

To ensure safety of the project, the activities would comply with international regulatory and scientific authorities, established laws and regulatory procedures in each country. For instance, in Uganda the researchers selected Kasese District as one of the areas that is highly prone to drought. But they are waiting for the approval of the National Biosafety Council, expected in mid-March, for the project to start around June.

The Gates Foundation has also funded an programme at McLaughlin-Roman Centre for Global Health at the University of Toronto to monitor social, cultural , ethical and commercial issues related to Wema.

Mozambique, which is a late entrant, is still at the communication phase while the rest at the regulatory phase as they look into the laws governing biosafety in their respective countries. The finale phase is the product development.

Crop failures resulting from droughts is one of the primary reasons small scale farmers in Africa do not adopt improved farming techniques such as hybrid seed and fertilizer. A combination of advanced breeding and biotechnology is expected to bring greater gains. A more reliable harvest could give farmers the confidence to make other improvement in their farming techniques, read a statement from AATF.

The East African

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