Food security boost likely from unique maize-legume project

Queensland scientists are leading an international food security research collaboration that aims to increase crop production by 30 per cent and reduce crop failures for 500,000 African farmers.

Scientists from The University of Queensland’s newest institute, the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and Queensland’s Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation (DEEDI) will meet with their African counterparts in Brisbane tomorrow (Tuesday, 22 March 2011) to discuss the new research into improving sustainable production of maize and legume crops in both Africa and Australia.

The new research alliance aims to reduce poverty and improve food security for African communities and help Australian growers capitalise on opportunities from current trends in weather and expected changes in climate.

Headed by QAAFI scientist, Dr Daniel Rodriguez, and supported by DEEDI research staff, the project will design more productive and sustainable cropping systems in five countries of southern and eastern Africa, and back in Australia in Queensland and New South Wales.

Dr Rodriguez said the long-term partnership is likely to significantly improve crop productivity of maize and legume crops in Africa and benefit Australian maize and legume industries.

“One of the main goals of our alliance is to increase productivity by 30 percent in Africa and significantly reduce the risk of crop failure or losses on approximately 500,000 small African households within the next ten years,” Dr Rodriguez said.

“Benefits likely to flow to Australia will include strategies to achieve sustainable intensification of Queensland and Northern New South Wales summer dominated rain-fed cropping systems such as maize.”

SIMLESA Program Leader, Dr Mulugetta Mekuria from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, said the research will look at the big picture issues surrounding sustainable and efficient farming.

“This partnership will assess market access and value chains, investigate more productive and sustainable practices and farming systems designs and determine how to provide growers with better access to improved maize and legume seeds,” Dr Mulugetta said.

“In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the proportion of undernourished people remains twice as high as in the developed world, research of this nature is incredibly valuable.”

Dr Mulugetta said food security was a major concern in eastern and southern Africa due to a lack of supply of staple foods along with increases in local and international food prices. Maize is the main staple crop in the southern and eastern regions and legumes are an important source of dietary protein for the rural poor. Legumes are widely grown in intercrops with maize. They also provide a significant source of income for the local women.

Back home, in some regions in north east Australia, growers have experienced challenges due to reductions in rainfall at key times in autumn and winter, along with increases in rainfall during summer. Dr Rodriguez said the resultant conditions are not dissimilar to those in Africa.

“Our key challenge is to determine how to make crops germinate and establish in autumn and winter under drier conditions and to identify how to make efficient use of the increased concentration of rainfall during fewer months in summer,” Dr Rodriguez said.

“Solutions on the drawing board that would benefit Australia include the development of dry sowing technology packages for winter crops, and methods to intensify maize-legume cropping systems during summer.

“Food security might not be a major concern in Australia and the world’s developed economies; however, our rural sectors and those in other developed countries need to prepare to cope with present climate variability and expected changes in climate.”

The QAAFI project ‘Sustainable intensification of maize-legume cropping systems for food security in eastern and southern Africa’ is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and managed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre. It is implemented by the National Agricultural Research Systems of Ethiopi, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique in collaboration with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa and Australian research institutions.

An information sheet outlining the stakeholders and other key information about this partnership is now available. For more information, contact Dr Rodriguez on email: d.rodriguez@uq.edu.au or phone: +61 7 46881437.

Dr Rodriguez will meet with the South African delegates in Brisbane, Gatton and Toowoomba this week and will also visit farmers from the Darling Downs. The group are available for photographs and interviews on 22 March at QAAFI, The University of Queensland campus, St Lucia, Brisbane from 11am to 1pm.

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