What do we know about the future of maize value chains in a changing climate and agri-food system?

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Food, land, and water systems face daunting challenges in the future, and the body of research exploring these challenges is growing rapidly. This note is part of a series developed by the CGIAR Foresight Initiative to summarize what we know today about the future of various aspects of food systems. The goal of these notes is to serve as a quick reference, point to further information, and help guide future research and decisions.

By Kindie Tesfaye (CIMMYT), Kai Sonder (CIMMYT), Diego Pequeno (CIMMYT), Faaiqa Hartley (IFPRI), and Sika Gbegbelegbe (IITA)

Key messages

  • Population growth, changing diets, and a rapidly growing feed sector are contributing to a sharp increase in global maize demand which is expected to double by 2050 relative to 2010.
  • Average global maize yield is projected to decrease by 11% under a global warming scenario of 2.0 °C (2060-2084) relative to the 1986–2005 period (in the absence of technological change, adaptation, or market adjustments).
  • The feed demand for maize is expected to grow faster in the coming few decades largely driven by rapid economic growth and diet shifts in highly populated regions in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.
  • Meeting the growing demand for maize will require dramatic increases in production, marketing, utilization, and resilience of maize-based farming systems.
  • While the supply of maize over the coming decades will be constrained by climate change, and limited availability of land and water, technological and policy innovations will bring new opportunities.
  • The combined challenges of increasing food demand, persisting poverty and malnutrition, natural resource depletion, and climate change will require the world to double the productivity and boost the sustainability and resilience of maize-based farming systems within planetary boundaries.

Recent trends and challenges

Maize is the world’s most multi-purpose crop and it continues to be the leading global cereal in terms of production (>1.2 million metric tons a year), area coverage (>197 million hectares) and utilization (food, feed, and industrial input) (Erenstein et al., 2022). Maize is produced across temperate and tropical zones on all continents. Maize value chains are influenced by various global, regional, national, and sub-national drivers, among which the following are the most significant.

Rising incomes, growing urban population, and dietary changes: Rising income levels and urbanization, especially in densely populated developing countries where dietary preferences are diversifying, are significantly driving up the demand for maize in both food and feed sectors (Grote et al., 2021). This surge in demand competes with alternative uses such as industrial and biofuel applications. Due to the strong demand for livestock feed driven mainly by dietary shifts to animal products, particularly noticeable in Asia, it is expected that the global demand for maize will outpace that of other major cereals (Erenstein et al., 2022).

Declining land and water resources and a growing need for intensification: Area expansion has been one of the means to increase maize production, particularly in the developing world (Cairns et al., 2021). Thus, a decline in the availability of land and water resources due to land degradation and mismanagement and constraints to expansion to new areas will have a negative effect on maize value chains. Land availability for future maize expansion is limited in many parts of the world although there is perceived land availability in Africa and East Asia. Even if new land is available, converting land to cropland will generate environmental costs in terms of increased land degradation, CO2 emissions and biodiversity loss (Ittersum et al., 2016). Globally, most freshwater is withdrawn by agriculture reaching up to 90% of the total fresh water use in fast-growing economies. Increasing global water scarcity is limiting the prospects of developing irrigation systems in many parts of the world’s agricultural lands (Grote et al., 2021). Given increasing temperatures and low water management capacities, future maize production is most likely going to be affected by water scarcity in Africa and South Asia. On the other hand,  intensification of maize production is expected to  free existing marginal land and reduce pressure on natural ecosystems from agricultural conversion (Stevenson et al., 2013). Sustainable intensification has been found to increase maize yields in rainfed and irrigated systems and will likely be the future means to bolster both the maize supply and the nutritional diversity of maize-based farming systems (Grote et al., 2021).

Climate variability and change: Climate change is expected to strongly affect the supply, price, and nutritional quality of maize due to  increasing temperatures, frequent extreme weather events (e.g., droughts, floods), changing agro-ecological conditions (e.g., crop seasons), and shrinking suitable cultivated areas (Thornton et al., 2014), (Grote et al., 2021). Moreover, climate change reduces maize production by increasing the incidence and severity of existing and emerging diseases and insect pests (Elad and Pertot, 2014; Cairns and Prasanna, 2018; Deutsch et al., 2018). The recent emergence of maize lethal necrosis disease (Sileshi and Gebeyehu, 2021) and fall army worm (De Groote et al., 2020) in the African maize systems and the havoc and damage these caused in the region are poignant examples of the potential consequences of climate change.  In many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indo-Gangetic Plains, climate variability accounts for over 50% of the total variation in maize yields (Ray et al., 2015). The negative impact of climate change and variability on maize yields in major exporting countries is expected to further destabilize global grain trade and international grain prices, affecting close to a billion people living in extreme poverty and are most vulnerable to food price spikes (Tigchelaar et al., 2018).

Technological and digital innovations: Improved seeds have the potential to transform maize value chains. Breeding techniques that employ modern technologies such as biotechnology, gene editing, and marker assisted selection are helping in the development of maize varieties that are resistant to heat, drought, disease, and pests (Cairns and Prasanna, 2018; Prasanna et al., 2021) with significant benefits to both producers and consumers (Kostandini et al., 2013). Precision agriculture, which is gaining a foothold in much of the developed world with a potential expansion to the developing world, provides another potential technological revolution for maize production (Grote et al., 2021). Digital innovations are facilitating precision maize farming in many regions including smallholder systems, by offering diverse digital solutions for smallholder farmers and the food industry sector (Tsan et al., 2019). Digital solutions are expected to bring effectiveness and efficiency as well as resilience to the future maize value chains.

What is the latest foresight research on maize value chains, and what does it show?

There are only a few recent foresight studies that address maize specifically although there are many on cereals generally. In this brief we considered the study of Kruseman et al. 2020 (Kruseman et al., 2020), which looked at maize in relation to rural transformation, and Ignaciuk & Mason-D’Croz 2014 (Ignaciuk and Mason-D’Croz, 2014), which included maize results in their modeling of adaptations to climate change, together with three recent studies that presented climate change projections on maize and implications for food security (Tigchelaar et al. 2018, Jägermeyr et al. 2021, and Li et al. 2022 (Tigchelaar et al., 2018; Jägermeyr et al., 2021; Li et al., 2022)).

The study by Kruseman et al. (2020) employing the IMPACT model with a moderate economic growth scenario across world economies under the drivers of population and income predicts a near-doubling of global maize consumption between 2010 and 2050. The simulations also show changes in maize utilization (food vs. feed) in the coming years. The majority of the maize in South Asia is projected to be allocated to livestock feed, increasing from 34% in 2010 to an estimated 72% in 2050. The shift away from human consumption to animal feed is also expected to expand in other regions such as the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa (Kruseman et al., 2020). The rise of demand and dietary changes are expected to increase global maize prices. Simulation studies utilizing the IMPACT model also indicate that, even in the absence of climate change, the real price of maize may increase by 50% by 2050 compared to 2005 prices. The surge is attributed to increased demand for both food and feed, driven by the growth in population and income, shifts toward protein-rich diets, and increased demand for biofuels from the energy sector (Ignaciuk and Mason-D’Croz, 2014).

Incorporating the effects of climate change, the growth in global maize production is anticipated to reduce to 36% between 2010 and 2050, a considerable difference from the 72% growth expected without climate change, with the impact varying across geographies.  Maize consumption would also decrease globally under the climate change scenario, while maize utilization patterns would remain consistent by 2050 (Kruseman et al., 2020). Furthermore, considering the impact of climate change, the real price of maize is expected to surge by up to 30% in 2050, specifically under the most extreme climate change scenario (Ignaciuk and Mason-D’Croz, 2014).

Recent improved climate and crop model projections indicate a reduction of mean global maize productivity ranging from 6% to 24% by 2099 (in the absence of technological change, adaptation, or market adjustments), with the impacts starting as early as 2030 (Jägermeyr et al., 2021). By the end of the century, from 10% to 74% of current global maize cultivation areas are projected to undergo yield reduction compared to the baseline period (1983–2013) (Jägermeyr et al., 2021). The biggest loss in suitable maize production area is expected in Africa and Asia (Grote et al., 2021) contributing to the projected 11% global average maize yield reduction by 2060-2084 relative to the 1986–2005 period(Li et al., 2022). Results from a study of two scenarios of warming (2 and 4oC) show that rising instability in global grain trade and international grain prices under the warmer scenario will affect more than 800 million people who are most vulnerable to food price spikes (Tigchelaar et al., 2018).  Given that a handful of countries dominate global maize production and trade, the occurrence of simultaneous production shocks in these countries due to rising temperatures could have tremendous impacts on global markets. These impacts, particularly increased input costs and diminished maize supplies, would pose severe challenges for people in developing countries (Tigchelaar et al., 2018).

Meeting the increasing demand for maize, adapting to changing diets, and addressing the impacts of climate change requires continuous innovations across the entire maize value chain. This includes implementing innovative policies, advancing genetic and crop management techniques, fostering regional market collaborations and amplifying investments in research and development (Erenstein et al., 2022).

What are key gaps, questions, and opportunities for further foresight research on this topic?

Although there are foresight studies on the future of cereals in general, only a few have focused specifically on maize mainly considering production and demand. Some foresight study gaps related to maize value chains include: (i) the role of maize and maize-based farming systems in the changing food systems that focus on nutrition, health, and inclusivity, (ii) the technological, economic, and social dimensions of genetic, agronomic, and food fortification of maize on food and nutrition security, particularly in the developing world, (iii) the impacts of the shifting maize demand from food to feed on the environment, nutrition, and sustainability; (iv) the effects of climate change on the quality of maize food and feed and the performance of maize supply chains; and (v) the influence of green maize (maize used for food before it fully matures) on food, nutrition, and employment opportunities, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This note was prepared by Kindie Tesfaye (CIMMYT), Kai Sonder (CIMMYT), Diego Pequeno (CIMMYT), Faaiqa Hartley (IFPRI), and Sika Gbegbelegbe (IITA). If you have any feedback or questions about this note, please get in touch with Kindie Tesfaye (check his profile page for contact details).


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Photo:  A farmer in Malawi checks her maize crop that is struggling as a result of the worst drought in three decades. Credit: © 2016CIAT/Neil Palmer

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