Written by Adeleke Mainasara
The Nigerian Government has released two new maize hybrids that can provide more vitamin A in the diets of millions in the country, raising optimism about stemming the menace of vitamin A deficiency in the years ahead, especially among children, pregnant women, and mothers. The provitamin A is converted by the body into vitamin A when the maize is eaten.
The hybrids, which are the first generation vitamin A-rich maize, were released on 4 July 2012 by the National Variety Release Committee of Nigeria as Ife maizehyb 3 and Ife maizehyb 4. They are recognized as IITA hybrids A0905-28 and A0905-32, respectively.
“The hybrids are a product of nearly a decade of breeding for enhanced levels of pro-vitamin A,” says Dr. Abebe Menkir, maize breeder with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), who led the development of the new maize hybrids.
The hybrids outperformed local checks with yields ranging from 6 to 9 tons per hectare compared with 2 tons per hectare recorded on most farmers’ fields.
The vitamin A hybrids were developed by IITA in partnership with the Institute of Agricultural Research & Training (IAR&T) using conventional breeding in a project funded by the HarvestPlus—a Challenge Program of the CGIAR as part of strategies to address the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency. Other collaborating partners include the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria; University of Maiduguri; International Maize and Wheat Center (CIMMYT), University of Illinois, and University of Wisconsin.
In Nigeria, vitamin A deficiency afflicts about 30% of children below five years of age, almost 20% of pregnant women, and 13% of nursing mothers. Vitamin A deficiency lowers immunity and impairs vision, which can lead to blindness and even death.
Researchers say the two hybrids can supply enhanced levels of vitamin A in the diets. Maize is consumed by millions of people throughout Nigeria, whether roasted and eaten off the cob or as a dish prepared from fermented maize flour.
According to Menkir, maize is the most frequently consumed staple in Nigeria with about 20% of households consuming it at different times within a week.
“These hybrids will provide not only increased amounts of provitamin A but also improve productivity in farming communities,” he says.
Farmers who participated in the on-farm trials indicated that they liked the varieties, so there is a high prospect for quick adoption.
IITA and IAR& T, in partnership with private seed companies, now plan to multiply these hybrids so they can begin distributing them to farmers by 2014, and to continue to develop higher levels of vitamin A in maize by conventional breeding.
“We plan to target to areas where maize consumption is high to help address the problem of vitamin A deficiency in Nigeria” says Dr. Samuel Olakojo, a maize breeder with IAR &T, who worked on the varieties with Menkir.
The release of vitamin A cassava in Nigeria last year should help pave the way for broad acceptance of the vitamin A maize. These new maize varieties are well suited to the tropical lowlands of many West African countries and are expected to spread beyond Nigeria's borders.
In a parallel effort, the International Maize and Wheat Research Center (known by their Spanish acronym CIMMYT) – a sister CGIAR Center of IITA – has been breeding mid-altitude vitamin A-rich varieties for Zambia in a project also funded by HarvestPlus, with release anticipated later this year.