Heartier corn can feed more hungry people

Research institute in Mexico develops corn that can withstand drought and acid soil

IN most parts of the globe when people's incomes rise, they eat more corn. Not necessarily off the cob, or in tortillas, or bread, or some other direct manner, but through increased consumption of meat. Corn is feed grain for livestock the world over.

When demand for corn goes up, ``it isn't all that popcorn we're eating,'' notes Don Winkelman, deputy director of the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat in Mexico (CIMMYT).

Yet corn can be a tricky plant to grow. It is unusually sensitive to drought at certain stages and does not thrive in acidic soils. Few places are as well-suited for corn as the United States agriculture belt, where yields are often three times greater than in the developing world.

Thus, efforts to breed better strains of corn and improve corn farming methods are an important part of any larger attempt to raise living standards on a global scale. As corn goes, so go pork cutlets - and China, for example, is eating more pork.

``As economic development proceeds, corn becomes an increasingly important foodstuff,'' Mr. Winkelman says.

Currently, about 148 million acres of farmland in the developing world are planted in corn. Of this land, some 32 million acres are located in Latin America. Seven million acres are in Africa, and 8 million in Asia.

The first priority for corn research is simply to produce ever more efficient plants. Corn, or maize, as it is known in much of the world outside of the US, is already one of the best plants at converting sunlight and water to grain that mankind cultivates. But in recent decades CIMMYT has refined a number of new high-protein corn strains, tailored for conditions in more than a dozen specific countries.

Among other things, these super corns are high in lysine, an essential amino acid that is not often found in plant protein.

CIMMYT has also recently created hardier corn breeds that might be able to increase yields by 40 percent in often-difficult third world growing conditions. If widely planted, the new corns could feed 50 million people more per year then current varieties, according to CIMMYT estimates. One strain of the tougher corns resists the harmful effects of acid soil.

Common in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Indonesia, and many other tropical developing nations, acid soils make nonresistant corn vulnerable to the toxic effects of dirt-borne aluminum. Perhaps more important, new hardy maize resists the effects of drought.

Dry spells hurt

Lack of water is a persistent problem for corn-growing nations, with half the third world acreage planted with corn crops subject to periodic dry spells. Corn crops are particularly susceptible to drought at certain times. If so stressed when flowering, the kernel yield of a corn plant can drop to zero.

It took CIMMYT researchers over eight years of effort to come up with their drought-hardy corn variety. First, they test-planted about 250 existing kinds of corn in Mexico, during the dry season. Those that came closest to meeting scientists' criteria were then selected for repeated breeding and cross-breeding efforts to strengthen their resistance to thirst. This was not biotechnology of the kind that produced new rot-resistant tomatoes, but old-fashioned, slogging science of the sort used successfully by botanists for centuries.

The tough, new breed that resulted produces pollinating tassels and pollen-receiving silk at the same time, even when deprived of regular moisture. Current commercial corns, when under drought stress, tend to shed pollen from their tassels before silk is developed and ready - greatly decreasing yields.

The new corn should be finished with field trials and ready for distribution to farmers in about three years, according to CIMMYT estimates. In places of the world where resistance to local pests must be bred in, such as Africa, this process may take some years longer.

Increased corn yields in the field can hardly come too soon for some parts of the world. In China, for instance, meat consumption has increased 10 percent annually for each of the last three years.

Pork for Asia

And it is pork - the most resource-intensive kind of meat - that accounts for the bulk of this gain, says Dennis Avery, director of global food issues at the Hudson Institute. All of Asia will see similar increases in meat consumption in coming years, according to Mr. Avery. Better strains of corn can make this transition easier, faster, and cheaper. Simply making the best use of high-quality corns available now could also help.

``We have a major underutilization of improved corn varieties in the world,'' Avery says.

Africa, along with Latin America, is a region where corn is widely eaten as a staple food. Recent advances have helped maize to spread rapidly in two particular African areas: the northern-Guinea savannah, and mid- and high-altitude areas of East Africa.

The future of corn in Africa looks relatively bright, says Dunstan Spencer, an agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. Maize is, however, highly dependent on expensive chemical fertilizer.

If African nations cut fertilizer subsidies for farmers, ``the productivity of this crop could be threatened in the future,'' Mr. Spencer says.

There is still much room for also improving the plant itself, despite recent advances. Researchers continue to try to increase the protein content of maize, for example.

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