Maize and wheat harvests keep pace despite the pandemic

Despite COVID-19 pandemic disruptions and extreme weather events, maize and wheat farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were mostly able to salvage good harvests from their 2020 crops.

Smallholders overcame many challenges, including the high costs and shortages of field labor, qualms about hiring outside field workers, and being cut off from inputs, credit, or technical support, according to Jelle Van Loon, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) mechanization specialist in Latin America.

“Some rural communities in Mexico closed off completely for fear of COVID, with farmers reluctant to attend to more than their basic needs, avoiding risks and minimizing long-term plans,” Van Loon said, “but household members did go to the field and work, aware that the grain they produced might prove critical if food supplies grew short and more expensive.”

Erratic rains during the onset of the pandemic, coinciding with the start of the main cropping season, caused smallholder farmers in Mexico, who generally lack irrigation, to behave conservatively, Van Loon explained.

“This and a month-long drought that killed many early-sown maize crops forced farmers to adjust to the ‘new normal’ and plant again when the rains came back,” he added. “In the meantime, cell phones and social media applications have proven vital for farmers to stay in touch and conduct business during the pandemic, allowing access to technical and administrative support and even the online purchase of inputs.”

In Africa, COVID-related lockdowns impeded the movement of rural inhabitants who, in addition to farming, depend on trade, part-time jobs as crafts persons and artisans, and small-scale mining. “Off-farm income is a mainstay of rural households in Africa,” observed Frédéric Baudron, CIMMYT systems agronomist based in Zimbabwe.

What it takes to keep farming going

Women test a mini tiller for direct seeding of maize on farmland in Ramghat, Surkhet district, Nepal.
Women test a mini tiller for direct seeding of maize on farmland in Ramghat, Surkhet district, Nepal.

In South Asia’s extensive maize and wheat lands, particularly in Bangladesh and northern India, excess rainfall and powerful typhoons flooded fields early in the cropping season. However, COVID-19 disrupted agriculture in new, diverse ways, according to T.S. Amjath-Babu, CIMMYT agricultural economist based in Bangladesh.

“International and domestic supply chains for fertilizers, agrochemicals, machinery, and seeds have been impeded by import and movement restrictions,” Amjath-Babu said. “Stay-in-place orders and limitations on migration have created labor shortages, and social distancing hinders farm operations.”

In northern India, where 2.4 million farmers grow variations of the rice-wheat cropping rotation, researchers had feared that the COVID-19 lockdown would delay rice sowing and disrupt the fine-tuned cropping system. Worst-case scenarios forecast economic losses of nearly $1.5 billion and more severe pollution from the late burning of rice straw. Fortunately, technologies that CIMMYT had refined for decades with national partners, along with policies to promote them, helped ward off the worst effects of the crisis.

In a recent study, Amjath-Babu and colleagues concluded that if the COVID-19 crisis lasts longer than many expect, resilient food systems will require stable supply chains, infection-free logistics, extended social safety nets, adequate credit facilities, innovative labor management, and appropriate farm mechanization.

Mechanization turns the wheels of small-scale farming

To mitigate labor shortages and make agriculture more manageable, CIMMYT has been testing and promoting scale-appropriate farm machinery for smallholder maize and wheat farmers.

“We facilitate and promote farmers’ acquisition and use of the right equipment, along with business models whereby those who already own machinery offer services to farmers for land preparation, planting, irrigation, harvesting, processing, and other activities,” said Timothy Krupnik, systems agronomist and CIMMYT country representative in Bangladesh. “This is a win-win situation for farmers who can’t access or afford field laborers, and allows crucial farm work to take place while maintaining social distancing.”

The use of small machinery lowers production costs and relieves pressure on available labor, Krupnik explained. “In a COVID-altered world, this will remain an essential support for food production in rural areas, particularly by the growing number of women-headed households, as the outmigration of working-age men increases.”

Developing and fostering use of appropriate mechanization is just one way CIMMYT helps pandemic-stricken farmers, according to Van Loon. “We continue to spread sustainable intensification technologies and practices, including cropping diversification, better post-harvest management of grain, business model development, and the targeted use of fertilizers and improved varieties.”

Partners and funders

In Africa, this work was carried out through the Farm Mechanization and Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Intensification (FACASI) project, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize (MAIZE), Wheat (WHEAT), and Climate Change, Agriculture & Food Security (CCAFS). Partners include Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture, the University of Southern Queensland, the University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement, service providers and training centers from Zimbabwe, and the private sector in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

In Bangladesh, this work was carried out through the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia Mechanization and Irrigation (CSISA-MI) and the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia Mechanization Extension Activity (CSISA-MEA), both funded by the Feed the Future initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

In Mexico, the Crops for Mexico project is supported by Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER). MasAgro-Guanajuato activities are supported by the state of Guanajuato.

© 2021 International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
We would like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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Marcia MacNeil, Rodrigo Ordóñez
Project coordination
Leslie Domínguez, Emma Orchardson
Art directors
Alfonso Cortés, Nancy Valtierra
Layout and design
Nancy Valtierra
Web design
Ricardo López
Graphics and illustrations
Marcelo Ortiz, Eliot Sánchez, Nancy Valtierra
Writers and editors
Nima Chodon, Madeline Dahm, Leslie Domínguez, Alison Doody, Wasim Iftikar, G. Michael Listman, Marcia MacNeil, Steven McCutcheon, Marta Millere, Emma Orchardson
T.S. Amjath Babu, Frederic Baudron, Hans Braun, Shiela Chikulo, Olaf Erenstein, Velu Govindan, M.L. Jat, Timothy Krupnik, Sylvanus Odjo, B.M. Prasanna, Harminder S. Sidhu, Jelle Van Loon
Francisco Alarcón, Alfonso Cortés, Wasim Iftikar, Peter Lowe, Ranak Martin, S. Mojumder/Drik, Matthew O'Leary, Love Kumar Singh/BISA, F. Sipalla, Dhruba Thapa/NARC, Szefei Wong/Dreamstime, CIMMYT Archives
Silvia Rico
Correct citation
CIMMYT. 2021. Resilience. Renewal. Transition. CIMMYT Annual Report 2020. CDMX, Mexico: CIMMYT.
AGROVOC descriptors:
Maize; Wheat; Plant breeding; Genetic resources; Innovation adoption; Plant biotechnology; Seed production; Food security; Sustainability; Research policies; Economic analysis; Cropping systems; Agricultural research; Organization of research; Developing countries. Additional Keywords: CIMMYT. AGRIS category codes: A50 Agricultural Research; A01 Agriculture– General Aspects. Dewey decimal classification: 630

© International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), 2021. All rights reserved. The designations employed in the presentation of materials in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of CIMMYT or its contributory organizations concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city, or area, or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. CIMMYT encourages fair use of this material. Proper citation is requested.


Asian Development Bank
Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat
Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics
Bioactive food components
Borlaug Institute in South Asia
CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security
International Center for Tropical Agriculture
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
CIMMYT Maize Genetic Resource Lines
Carbon dioxide equivalent
Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia
Crops to End Hunger
Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research
CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform
Executive Management Team
European Union
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
Farm Power and Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Intensification
Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office of the United Kingdom
Fusarium head blight
Innovative Applications in Analytics Award
Indian Council of Agricultural Research
International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas
International Food Policy Research Institute
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement
International Rice Research Institute
Integrated Tribal Development Agency
Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences
Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization
Key performance indicators
CGIAR Research Program on Maize
Nitrous oxide
Nepal Agricultural Research Council
National Agricultural Research Systems
Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society
Punjab Agricultural University
Program for Growth and Resilience
Mexico's Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development (Secretaría de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural)
Sustainable Development Goals
Seeds of Discovery
Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa
Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund
United Nations
United Nations Development Programme
United States Agency for International Development
United Nations World Food Programme
CGIAR Research Program on Wheat
Unless otherwise indicated, all amounts are expressed in U.S. dollars

Sustainable Development Goals

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations (UN) Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity, for people and the planet. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

The SDGs set the pathway for agricultural, social, and economic development. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

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CIMMYT – the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center – is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.

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