A scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)
is working to help farmers face the challenges posed by climate change by
using the natural diversity of plants to unlock desirable genetic Traits
inside food crops. Terry Molnar, maize phenotyping and breeding specialist
at CIMMYT, studies the traits found in different maize varieties in the
CIMMYT seed collections that can be used to strengthen crops and produce
healthy food and better livelihoods. He studies landraces to identify useful
traits such as resistance to heat and drought.
Molnar looks for landrace varieties with natural resistance to two prevalent
maize diseases, tar spot complex (TSC) and maize lethal necrosis (MLN). TSC
is an important disease in the southern half of Mexiko, Central America, and
northern South America, and can decrease yields by 50 percent when it gets
into fields early in a growing cycle. Most of the farmers in the affected
areas are too poor to afford fungicides, so resistance built into varieties
is very important. Likewise, MLN is a large problem in eastern Africa.
The last trait that Molnar looks for is pigmentation, specifically blue and
red kernel colors. This effort aims to develop new end-use markets in
Mexico. Maize pigments come from increased concentrations of the antioxidant
anthocyanin, which has been connected to decreased cancer risk. Blue and red
maize can be used for specialty food products or for industrial use such as
the extraction of natural colors for use in other food products. In both
cases, the pigmented maize commands a higher price for the farmer and gives
them access to new markets.