Resistant seed helps Mali farmers battling climate change

by Soumaila T. Diarra | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 January 2011 14:44 GMT
New varieties of seeds developed to withstand the effects of climate change have breathed new life into sorghum cultivation in Mali, farmers say

SANAKOROBA, Mali (AlertNet) – New varieties of seeds developed to withstand the effects of climate change have breathed new life into Malian crop cultivation, farmers say.

Mali’s climate has been changing since at least the early 1980s. Increasingly severe droughts, rainfall shortages and deforestation have robbed large parts of the country of fertile land and forced farmers to abandon some crops.

But farmers can now return to valuable cereals like sorghum, thanks to the benefits of scientific research.

Abdoulaye Traore, a 63-year-old farmer, tried out new high yield sorghum last year with great results.

“The plots where I tested the new seeds … were near a road and many farmers passing by used to stop to watch them, and sometimes some asked me if they could grow them,” said Traore.

Traore was the only farmer in his village of Sanakoroba - about 30 km from the south of Bamako, the Malian capital - to receive the seeds, provided by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a partnership organisation that works with African smallholder farmers and local scientists to promote sustainable agricultural growth.

AGRA, whose research programme is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation, aims to help small farmers get access to improved seeds.

Traore, who planted several varieties of sorghum seeds in July and harvested them in October, was delighted with his crop.

“I grew three kinds of the new seeds and one traditional seed. The result has been amazing. The new seeds yielded 5,125 tonnes per hectare while the traditional seeds’ yield was 3,800 tonnes per hectare,” said Traoré.

FARMERS ABANDON SORGHUM

Sorghum, along with millet, supplies 80 percent of Mali’s food demand but researchers have noted how changing weather conditions have forced a growing number of farmers to stop planting the crop in past years.

“In the northern regions of Mali, while doing research in 1978, I noted farmers used to produce several species of sorghum. Today, in the same regions, I notice the farmers no longer have those species of seeds and they no longer produce sorghum,” said Abocar Toure, who is carrying out research in Mali on the behalf of AGRA.

Toure, a scientist based at Mali’s Institute of Rural Economy, travels across the country to try out his research on farmers.

“In these dry northern regions of Mali, we are trying to reintroduce sorghum by testing new seeds adapted to the current climate of areas that flood. And the farmers are really interested in them because they can now grow crops twice a year, first in the rainy season (from July to October) and then from October to March when the soils are not wet. That was impossible with the traditional seeds,” said Toure.

According to a 2002 report by the Malian government, sorghum cultivation covers 657,000 hectares in the country.

Research into new varieties of climate-adapted seeds began in 2007 and is one of the most important pieces of agricultural research underway in the country, experts say. Mali’s research into improving sorghum yields dates back to the 1980s, however.

Generally, Malian farmers use low yield sorghum seeds in their farms that produce little more than 970 kg per hectare.

“This low yield is due to some hindrances like drought, soil infertility and illnesses and insects that attack the crops,” said Kola Tangara, a researcher at the Institute of Rural Economy.

Under AGRA’s research programme, the farmers work with scientists in the field to help create the climate-adapted seeds, often giving them local names.

The white flour that comes from the sorghum variety known as N’Tenimissa (which means “without regret” in the ethnic Bambara language), for example, has proved ideal for processing into white flour mixes as a substitute for wheat.

This and other sorghum varieties created by the scientists also help improve farmers’ lives as they can be processed into value-added products for sale, such as breads and confectionaries.

“These new sorghum varieties can be used to make biscuits, spaghettis and drinks,” Toure said.

 ACCESS TO NEW SEEDS IS LIMITED

In addition to sorghum, researchers are looking at adapting other crops to changing climate conditions, including commercial crops like cotton and wild berries that the region’s poorest people pick and eat.

“Our target is to contribute to produce improved crops for industrial and artisanal uses,” Tangara said.

Because of the diversity of changing climate patterns across the country, researchers are creating seeds adapted to every agricultural zone of Mali.

In the northern regions, where it rains between 400 mm and 600 mm per year, they use quick maturing seeds that can be harvested in 100 days. These are adapted to the soils, staying viable even after 20 days without rain.

In the centre of the country, where it rains more than 600 mm, farmers are testing seeds with a longer 120-day planting to harvesting cycle.

Nevertheless, although 16 percent of the Malian national budget goes to agriculture, many farmers remain poor and may not be able to access the new seeds immediately because of their cost.

“Mali’s poor cannot yet use the new seeds on a large scale,” said Maïmouna Sidibe, a seed seller. But “they will be on the commercial circuit in 2012 at a lower price,” he said.

Eighty percent of Mali’s 14 million people are small farmers, sharing 4.6 million hectares of arable land. Agriculture comprises 35 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to a report released by AGRA in 2009.

Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Mali.