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March 31, 2010

New maize varieties set to improve harvest

New maize varieties that are more able to cope with the small amount of fertiliser used in Africa have been developed and will improve South African harvests by up to 50 percent.

Science-based products company DuPont said onMarch 18 a new collaboration, Improving Maize for African Soils (Imas), had been set up to assist this development.

Imas is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre and funded with $19.5 million (R142.4m) in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAid.

DuPont, along with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and the SA Agricultural Research Council, were providing contributions including staff, infrastructure, seed, technology, training and know-how to Imas.

"The project will initially benefit South Africa and Kenya, to be followed by the rest of sub-Saharan Africa over the next four to nine years," said DuPont's regional director for sub-Saharan Africa, Carlman Moyo.

On average, African farmers applied just one-fifth of the nitrogen needed to help grow vigorous crops, Moyo said.

Although nitrogen was expensive it was critical to the development of crops, particularly in Africa, where soils had been farmed for thousands of years and were depleted of natural organic nitrogen.

"Maize yields of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are a fraction of those in the developed world, due mainly to the region's poor soils and farmers' limited access to fertiliser or improved maize seed."

Because of high transportation costs due to poor roads and rail systems, African farmers often paid as much as six times more than their US and European peers for fertiliser.

"As a result, they apply far less than the amounts needed to produce vigorous crops."

Like many sub-Saharan African countries, South Africa had to optimise the use of its soils for agriculture to increase food security, and must do so while facing climate change, escalating input costs and a deteriorating natural resource base.

"The Imas project will apply scientific innovations to provide long-term solutions for African farmers, as well as developing maize varieties suited to South Africa's diverse farming ecologies," Moyo said.

The Imas project would develop maize varieties that were better at capturing the small amount of fertiliser that African farmers could afford.

Imas participants would use biotechnology tools such as molecular markers, DNA "signposts" for traits of interest, and transgenic approaches to develop varieties that ultimately yielded 30 percent to 50 percent more than varieties currently available, with the same amount of nitrogen fertiliser.

According to Moyo, the varieties developed would be made available royalty-free to seed companies that sold to the region's smallholder farmers, meaning that the seed would become available to farmers at the same cost as other types of improved maize seed.

"Imas is an excellent example of how innovative public-private partnerships can work to improve food availability, livelihoods and lives in areas facing chronic food insecurity."

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