ITPGRFA at Work: Access to genetic resources benefiting maize farmers in Malawi

Concerns are increasing that climate change will intensify drought conditions in Africa and could contribute to localized food shortages. A recent peer-reviewed study published by Stanford University and the Global Crop Diversity Trust cautioned that by 2050, growing conditions in most African countries will be hotter than any year on record. Consequently, many of the maize varieties now under cultivation will no longer be adapted to grow under these harsher conditions.  However, another recent study indicated that widespread adoption of recently developed drought resistant maize varieties could significantly increase harvests in 13 African countries (between 10-34%) and possibly generate up to $1.5 billion in economic benefits to farmers and producers, if adopted widely. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), through the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project, have worked together with national research centres in Africa to develop over 50 new drought resistant maize varieties that produce yield advantages over existing varieties. It is anticipated that farmers and consumers in Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe would likely see the greatest benefits from these new innovations as maize is a staple in local diets, and farmers in these countries have a strong history of adopting new and improved maize varieties. 

In particular, two varieties which were released in Malawi in 2009 (ZM 309 and ZM 523) are showing real promise and are specifically suited for drought conditions and infertile soils. Farmers who are using the varieties are indicating that ZM 309 and ZM 523 are earlier maturing, yield greater harvests, and are more suitable for making flour than other popular existing varieties. Locally, the variety ZM309 is called ``Msunga banja``, when translated in Cichewa means ``that which takes care of or feeds the family``. Whereas ZM 523 is known as `Mwayi`, in Cichewa, is the term used for ``fortunate``. In 2009 the Malawi government included ZM 309 in a government initiative under in Malawi’s Agricultural Input Subsidy Program that offered farmers discounts on the purchase of this improved variety. This program targets small holding farmers with access to land and production resources to bolster agriculture output. ZM 309 and ZM 523 are both open pollinated varieties (OPVs), not hybrids. This means that farmers can save and reuse seed from one season to the next without diminished yield or loss in quality. Typically, commercial seed companies are not attracted to developing OPVs, but prefer to invest in hybrids as this requires farmers need to buy and sow purchased F1 seed each year. However, Seed Co. a Malawi based company is adapting its business model and producing certified seed of both varieties to meet farmer demands.

ZM 309 was bred using CIMMYT inbred parental lines CM 541 and CM 542. These two lines are available in limited quantity from the CIMMYT Germplasm Bank for requestors willing to agree to a SMTA under ITPGRFA. As mentioned previously, CIMMYT along with several other institutions under the CGIAR umbrella are party to the ITPGRFA “Multilateral System”.  The CIMMYT genebank contains over 27, 451 individual maize accessions. Approximately 89% are landraces of which; 38% were collected in Mexico, 13% in Mexico, 12% in Central America and the Caribbean. In addition to the aforementioned landraces, the CIMMYT genebank also contains collections of; wild relatives of maize, approximately 2000 pools, populations, and breeder varieties, along with inbred CIMMYT maize lines. This example illustrates the importance of continued access to elite germplasm under the Treaty`s Multilateral System to develop successful varieties which can be adopted globally. 

For more information about the OPV maize varieties ZM 309 and ZM 523, and CIMMYT’s Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Program (DMTA) please refer to the following video and websites: