Heartier Corn Can Feed More Hungry People Research Institute in Mexico Develops Corn That Can Withstand Drought and Acid Soil

Article excerpt

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. …