The Science Behind Maize Hybrids


The Journey of a Seed

Farming in Africa can often be traumatic. Crop failures are not uncommon. In “Seeds of the Future,” maize farmer Zeka Twoboy cites the challenges he faces, including pests and changes in climate, and recounts how, after trying out different seeds, he had such a huge harvest on his small plot of land that people in his village accused him of using magic and witchcraft.

The maize seed he used, called Pioneer® maize brand hybrid 30G97, made a multi-year journey across several countries before it arrived at Twoboy’s small farm in Malawi.

How is plant breeding done

Graphic showing how is plant breeding done.

Maize hybrids are created by crossing, or breeding, two different inbred parent lines with desired characteristics to combine into a hybrid. Farmers value hybrids because they are stronger and perform better across different environments than their inbred parent lines or open pollinated varieties (OPVs). With the impacts of climate change and rising populations, hybrids play an important role in combating world hunger.

While science may be universal, solutions are local; responses must match the specific needs of farmers. For example, Twoboy and his neighboring farmers need seeds that have a high tolerance to drought. Other diverse environmental factors that must be considered include differences in climate, rainfall amounts and distribution, soil, and pests.

From Mexico and Zimbabwe to Malawi

The journey of 30G97 began in a DuPont Pioneer maize research facility in Mexico where researchers developed a parent line that would create a plant that was hardier and could yield up to four times greater than maize seeds typically planted in Africa. The second parent line was created in Zimbabwe at the DuPont Pioneer Harare Research Station. In addition to excellent yield potential, the hybrid was bred to ensure that it would have key agronomic strengths, including tolerance to common plant diseases, very good grain quality, and strong stand ability to withstand unstable growing conditions.

Once developed, 30G97 was destined for Zambia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, where it would encounter mid-altitude dry, moist and wet environments. The seed was rigorously tested to see how it could be adapted to the respective climates of each area.

As 30G97 traveled closer to Twoboy’s farm, it was planted at the DuPont Pioneer off-season nursery in Zimbabwe to test and prepare it for the very similar growing conditions in Malawi.

Pioneer agronomists work closely with farmers to ensure that seeds are planted correctly and that there is continuous adherence to best management practices throughout the growing season. Twoboy received guidance directly from Patrick W. Khembo, managing director of Chemicals & Marketing Co. Ltd., in Blantyre, Malawi, a third-party distributor of Pioneer brand seed. Distributors like Patrick undergo many years of field training by Pioneer agronomists in preparation to provide the advice and support they routinely offer local growers.