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July 13, 2011

Global research alliance eyes doubled maize yields in the future

by Lauren Biron

Farmers would grow more corn on less land in a few decades with the goal of doubling production worldwide if a new coalition of researchers is successful.

On Wednesday, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research announced a global alliance of 350 partners, including universities, agricultural research institutes in countries around the world and private organizations, that will research ways to improve maize production, nutrition and resistance to climate change. It has a budget of $170 million from CGIAR, governments, foundations and partners.

"Food is a global issue," said Lloyd Le Page, chief executive officer of the research group, which has backing from the World Bank, the United Nations, the U.S. and other governments. "Whether we're talking about Iowa farmers or whether we're talking about farmers in Africa, we need to be able to double the amount of maize grown."

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey was enthusiastic about farmers increasing their productivity and their crops' resistance to droughts and floods. He's already seen it happen once in 2010, when Iowa doubled its 1961 yield.

"I'm sure if you talked to someone in 1961, they could not have possibly imagined it," Northey said.

The research will be focused primarily on helping farmers in developing countries where millions depend on maize as a staple crop for themselves and their livestock.

"Maize is the new green revolution crop," said Thomas Lumpkin, the director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Group. "It is the crop that the 900 million poorest people in the world depend on."

The program is expected to provide enough maize to meet the demands of an additional 135 million people by 2020, according to Amy Stilwell of the World Bank.

Inger Andersen, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank Group, estimated that food production worldwide needs to increase by 70 percent to meet demands.

"There are close to one billion hungry people today worldwide," she said "That is an unacceptable statistic."

The alliance aims to double worldwide maize production by 2050. Initiatives include analyzing the rotation of maize with other crops, enhancing "precision agriculture" that grows maize with exactly the amounts of water, fertilizer and soil that it needs and making maize better adapted to climate change.

"As climate change affects our planet, we are seeing diseases moving further and further north," said Le Page. Invasive species that spread to new ecosystems can impact maize yield for farmers.

Andersen said that climate variability in the next 50 years is projected to reduce crop yields by 16 percent worldwide.

To increase disease tolerance and resistance to extreme weather events, a primary focus will be sequencing maize DNA, largely funded by the Mexican government.

"Mexico is very proud that they have given maize to the world," Lumpkin said. "Now Mexico wants to give the world the DNA sequence of maize."

Sequencing the DNA might allow scientists to pick out and manipulate traits to improve the quality and yield of maize crops.

"Those traits will be available to everyone around the world, and will bring benefit to everyone --- including the richest farmers and the poorest farmers," Lumpkin said.

Research partners in the new coalition include the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria, the Syngenta Foundation in Kenya and the Mexican ministry of Agriculture.

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