Print options

August 24, 2010

New Corn Varieties Could Combat Famine During Drought

by Michael Onyiego

Increasingly frequent droughts across Africa threaten to destroy the livelihoods of millions across the continent, but a new study has found the adoption of drought resistant corn could save African farmers and earn them nearly $1 billion in the coming years.

Hundreds of millions of Africans rely on corn production for income, as well as basic sustenance in their daily lives.  But in recent decades, drought has wreaked havoc on populations across the continent, killing many and forcing others to rely on handouts to survive.

From 2007 through 2009 unusually low rainfall across East Africa devastated rural communities and forced the Kenya government to adopt measures to combat food shortages and rising prices.

But a new study conducted by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center has found new breeds of corn could help farmers fight the effects of drought and provide food throughout periods of low rainfall.  The study, conducted in cooperation with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found widespread adoption of so-called "drought-tolerant" corn could result in collective economic benefits of around $900 million for African farmers by 2016.

According to the study, the new breeds could also save consumers more than $500 million in drought related price increases during the same period.

According to one of the report's authors, Wilfred Mwangi, the introduction of drought-tolerant corn will be critical for African farmers trying to weather the effects of global climate change.

"The issue of climate change is a reality," said Mwangi.  "Drought occurs very, very often in sub-Saharan Africa.  It is even predicted that by 2050 we might even need entirely different varieties of maize if we are going to mitigate against drought.  This whole question of climate change and drought out of that climate change is the major constraint to maize production in Africa.  This is an important strategy that famers can use to adapt against climate change."

According to Mwangi, who is also the associate director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center's Global Maize Program, many of Africa's farmers are small-scale subsistence producers with little or no access to irrigation systems, which leaves them especially vulnerable to drought conditions.

He told VOA the introduction of new corn varieties could boost yields by as much as 30 percent and protect against future shortages.

East Africa has managed to recover from two consecutive years of drought with help from unusually high rains in late 2009 and early 2010.  The rains were caused by an "El Nino event" and produced extremely high crop yields across the region.   

But early signs of a "La Nina" event have many expert predicting reduced rainfall in the coming months.  According to a brief released in August by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, the developing "La Nina" could inhibit the rainy season, which typically lasts from October through December.  If the rains fail, another devastating, region-wide drought can be expected as early as February.