What Do We Know About the Future of Maize Value Chains in a Changing Climate and Agri-Food System?

Jan 12, 2024

By Kindie Tesfaye and Kai Sonder et.al

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)).

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