A long-standing need to genetically enhance the nutritional value of cereal grains such as maize, led to the development of quality protein maize (QPM), a process which began in the 1960s. Maize is a significant food source for much of the developing world. Indeed in 12 developing countries, it makes up over 30% of total dietary protein.
In 1985 CIMMYT began a QPM hybrid breeding initiative. The aim to breed for a naturally-occurring mutant maize gene that increases levels of lysine and tryptophan, two amino acids necessary for protein synthesis. The development of an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) in the 1990s aided the speed with which to measure levels of lysine, which was previously both slow and costly.
Due to progress made by researchers on QPM and the apparent benefits for human nutrition, there has been a renewal of interest in QPM R&D and since the mid 1990s, QPM has been tested at research stations all over the world (at a rate of around 600 to 1000 hybrid combinations of maize per year).
These efforts are largely due to the persistence and effective strategy implemented by researchers working on QPM, most notable CIMMYT whose researchers, Surinder K. Vasal and Evangelina Villegas, won the World Food Prize in 2000.
A meta-analysis, published in 2010, found that children suffering malnutrition and living in maize-dependent areas could expect a 12% increased growth rate for weight and a 9% increased growth rate for height if fed QPM over conventional maize. Yet QPM has not been widely adopted with only 1% of maize land in Central America, Sub Saharan Africa and Asia growing QPM. This is largely due to market difficulties such as the lack of a premium despite higher nutritional value as well as a lack of interest in QPM by seed companies due to the increased costs in producing and storing QPM separately to conventional maize.
Active promotion of QPM as well as several ongoing QPM development projects in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean run by CIMMYT and other partners have, however, shown significant results. For example, one project started in 2003 saw, in the first five years, seven new QPM varieties released and 270 field days attended by over 37,000 farmers, about 40% of whom were women.