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Targeted tools and practices to tackle climate change

Decades of research and application by scientists, extension workers, machinery specialists, and farmers have perfected practices that conserve soil and water resources, improve yields under hotter and dryer conditions, and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and pollution associated with maize and wheat farming in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

All are being studied and promoted with farmers and partners by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), as the following examples illustrate.

Strict dosing of wheat fertilizer in Mexico

Photo: Sergio Sivamea Cepeda grows wheat and sorghum in Tetabiate, state of Sonora, northwestern Mexico, using zero tillage, crop residues, biofertilizers, and irrigation with wastewater.

In the Yaqui Valley, an irrigated desert in northwest Mexico dedicated to intensive durum wheat cropping, scientists are working urgently with farmers to help them apply nitrogen fertilizer more precisely.

“If you under-apply nitrogen fertilizer, your yield goes down, so farmers typically over-fertilize,” said Iván Ortíz-Monasterio, CIMMYT sustainable intensification and wheat crop management expert.

Wheat plants will use only about a third of the nitrogen applied; the remainder is partly emitted as nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, or seeps into waterways, causing harmful algae blooms in the Sea of Cortés off Mexico’s northwest coast.

Ortíz-Monasterio has worked with developers of inexpensive hand-held sensors that let farmers know exactly when to apply fertilizer and how much for optimal crop yield and nitrogen use. Last year, a local company began flying drone-mounted sensors over wheat fields, converting the readings to fertilizer dosage recommendations and selling the information to farmers.

“Farmers growing wheat on approximately 1,000 hectares paid for the service last year,” said Ortíz-Monasterio. “Now four such companies are operating in the Valley. This represents a win-win for local businesses, farmers, and climate change mitigation, not only for Yaqui Valley but potentially for other regions worldwide that share similar growing conditions and challenges.”

Endorsing climate-smart farm policies in South Asia

To increase farmer adoption of resource-conserving and climate-resilient methods in South Asia, where more than 13 million hectares are under rice-wheat cropping rotations, the CIMMYT-led Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) has helped foster small businesses that sell zero-tillage and other services to farmers or rent specialized equipment to them.

CIMMYT scientists worked with local experts in South Asia and other partners to develop and spread a powerful implement that can sow wheat seed directly into unplowed soils and thick rice residues. In Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, India, the number of service providers using this “Happy Seeder” grew from just over 200 in 2012 to more than 4,000– covering nearly 260,000 hectares – in 2018.

“India could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by almost 18 percent through efficient use of fertilizer, zero tillage, and better water management in rice farming,” said Tek Sapkota, agricultural systems and climate change mitigation specialist for CIMMYT, referring to a 2018 study he led.

Paralleling the work by Ortíz-Monasterio in Mexico, Sapkota and colleagues found that precision management using the Nutrient Expert and photosynthesis sensors to fine tune fertilizer dosages raised yields as much as 25 percent, with up to 20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.

“Adopting those practices for rice and wheat throughout India would result in 13.9 million tons more grain, 1.4 million tons less fertilizer applied, and 5.3 million tons less carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions per year, over current farming practices,” Sapkota said.

Conservation agriculture boosts resilience in small-scale maize farming in Africa

Photo: Zambian farmer Gertrude Banda has benefited from CA practices, including zero tillage, improved weed control, and intercropping maize with cowpeas.

Climate-smart practices are helping smallholder farmers maintain maize yields under increasingly hot and dry conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. The region’s number-one food crop, maize is grown using rainfall and with little or no mineral fertilizer, according to CIMMYT scientist Christian Thierfelder.

“Soil quality is improved by reduced tillage and by rotating or intercropping maize with ‘green manures,’ legumes that add nitrogen and organic matter to the system,” said Thierfelder. “Together with keeping crop residues on the field, these practices build healthier soils, conserve moisture, and allow crops to stand up to erratic weather.”

The residue cover also suppresses weeds and the legume intercrop provides more fodder for livestock, a critical source of income for many farmers. Thierfelder said farmers are requesting more information on climate-smart practices, fertilizer access, improved varieties, and labor-saving techniques.

Drought-tolerant hybrid seed offers farmers reprieve from hunger

Gitau Gichuru, a smallholder farmer in Vyulya, Machakos, Kenya, is not worried about his maize crop, despite the hot sun and dry weather.

For years, prolonged dry spells have undermined the food security and livelihoods of rural families in the region, who depend on rain-fed farming. But Gitau is growing a drought tolerant hybrid developed by CIMMYT and promoted to Kenyan farmers by Dryland Seed company. Under the right management practices, the hybrid can yield up to 20 percent more than other popular drought-tolerant hybrids in the region, according to Dryland Seed’s managing director, Ngila Kimotho.

When Gichuru sowed the hybrid maize for the first-time last season, he didn’t expect the crop to amount to anything. “We only had some little rain at the time of planting and during the vegetative state,” he explained, “but, I’m looking forward to a good harvest.”

Funders and partners include the Agriculture and Rural Development Department (SADER) of Mexico, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and its funders, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the International Food Policy Research Program (IFPRI), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) supported by work mentioned in this piece.
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