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Environment

Newer crop varieties could check world hunger but meet with resistance

Drought-prone regions of Africa are likely to be hard-hit as climate change continues. Although food is already in short supply there, local farmers are reluctant to plant new crop varieties that promise better yields.

Workers plant NERICA rice

NERICA rice can thrive in drought-prone environments

In drought-prone regions of Africa, people are often bitterly poor and food is scarce. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of those regions are the very people who, experts say, will be the first to suffer the consequences of climate change.

While droughts used to occur in eastern Africa every seven years, they now occur almost every other year. This negatively impacts food output in the region.

One organization working to improve food security in Africa is the Coalition for African Rice Development, which wants to drastically reduce the continent's reliance on expensive rice imports. It hopes to develop resilient new rice varieties and distribute them to smallholder farmers, thereby doubling rice production to 28 million tons per annum by the year 2018.

However, not all farmers are willing to plant modified seeds, whether they be rice, maize or any another crop.

Farmers resist change

A smallholder maize farm in Africa

Smallholder maize farms in Africa are suffering from less rainfall and higher temperatures

Christina Sabini runs a small farm near Morogoro, Tanzania with her husband, and says less rain and more heat have reduced harvests during recent years. Like other farmers in the region, Sabini says she has no choice but to adapt to the changing climate.

Last year, she was offered new TAN250 maize seeds, which were researched and tested in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

"These seeds are better because they also survive droughts, and they do provide good yields. Even without using fertilizer, I can reap good maize," she said.

Sabini was one of the few regional farmers who chose to accept the seeds, and she believes she made the right decision. Others were more conservative and continued using the traditional varieties.

According to Cynthia Awuor, a climate expert with the non-governmental organization CARE in Kenya, developing drought-resistant seeds is only half the challenge faced by those whose want to curb world hunger by increasing crop yields. Convincing farmers to voluntarily change their habits and plant the new seeds can be very difficult.

"There's much more exploration into drought tolerant species of maize as well as other crops. At the same time, we are trying to promote crop varieties and seed varieties that were traditionally drought tolerant. So we're encouraging farmers to go into planting more and more sorghum, for example, and cassava, which are traditionally drought tolerant types of crops," Awuor told Deutsche Welle.

Modified crops are slow to catch on

But Awuor and her organization are not the first to encounter resistance to modified crop varieties. In the 1990's, scientists cross bred a high-yield variety of Asian rice with a stress-resistant African one. The result was NERICA, tough and locally adapted rice best suited for the highland or dry land environments which account for about 70 percent of Africa's rice farms.

People in Africa barter over rice

Increased food production may save lives as climate change progresses

Many farmers have been able to double their harvests, thanks to the new rice, but NERICA didn't catch on until more than 80 varieties and thousands of lines were developed to cater to regions in 20 African countries.

Thomas Yanga works for the United Nation's World Food Program, where he is responsible for West Africa. He is well aware of the attitudes of farmers in his home country of Cameroon.

"I know from my own village that the people are very, very attached to the taste of certain commodities. And for them the taste is more important than anything else. Any new variety that does not give them the same taste, they will reject," he told Deutsche Welle.

Monty Jones from Sierra Leone was awarded the World Food Prize six years ago for his role in developing NERICA. While he is proud of the rich harvest reaped from the new rice variety, he is worried about the impact of climate change in the future.

"At a certain level of distress – whether it's drought, whether it's flooding, whether it's salinity – every material will break down. Basically, what we can do is to increase the level of resistance or tolerance to these problems," he told Deutsche Welle.

Author: Adrian Kriesch / gps
Editor: Ranjitha Balasubramanyam

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