How a new seed gives Guatemala a way out of hunger and bad health

Poor farmers in Guatemala eat little however maize. A primary step out of malnutrition is a brand new seed bred to yield the nutritional vitamins and minerals they want

Steep slopes, sweltering climate, poverty and malnutrition: that is Camotán, a city in south-eastern Guatemala, dwelling to the brothers Luis and Antonio Mejía. They haven’t any financial revenue: they reside off the maize they harvest. Each are married fathers of younger kids and reside in a small concrete and sheet-metal home, with no rest room or electrical energy.

“My household and I eat round eight kilos (3.6kg) of corn every day. As a result of I don’t have cash, we normally eat tortillas with out beans, about 5 or 6 per day, which is able to maintain us full,” mentioned Luis.

You possibly can’t be wholesome on that type of weight loss program. Ninety per cent of Guatemalans dwelling in excessive poverty eat the identical meals day-after-day. They’ve little or no alternative to have a balanced weight loss program wealthy in protein. And in Camotán, 41.1 per cent of the inhabitants lives in excessive poverty, in keeping with knowledge from the Guatemalan Institute of Statistics. 

Malnutrition is power amongst individuals like these. “In rural and low-income households, the weight loss program is monotonous. They largely devour maize and its derivatives, like tortillas,” mentioned Mónica Mazariegos, a researcher on the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP). Guatemala has a number of the highest dangers of zinc and iron deficiency in Latin America.

The Mejía brothers discovered the way to develop corn once they had been little, Antonio, 40, recalled. “Our father taught us one of these exercise as a type of survival once we had been round eight years outdated,” he mentioned.

They observe the identical routine day-after-day, waking up at 5am, strolling for about 20 minutes to the sector the place they domesticate the corn, and coming again dwelling round 6pm to eat tortillas. 

Ninety per cent of Guatemalans dwelling in excessive poverty eat maize day-after-day. Picture: Markus Spiske

Whereas his spouse and daughter keep at dwelling all through the day to organize the tortillas and different corn-based meals, Luis, 42, takes his ten-year-old son to the sector to assist him with the land work.

The work hasn’t modified, however now the household has higher vitamin – because of a brand new type of maize seed.

Semilla Nueva, a non-profit initiative working in Guatemala since 2017, has given them a hybrid seed, bred by typical selective breeding – not genetic modification – that has extra important vitamins than the maize the brothers grew earlier than.

“Our resolution improves the most affordable and most culturally vital meals, which is corn,” mentioned Curt Bowen, co-founder and government director of Semilla Nueva. “The F3 maize seed is bred to extend the crop’s density of nutritional vitamins and minerals. Since it’s consumed repeatedly by these farmers and households, this agronomic observe will make a big impact on the inhabitants’s dietary standing.”


Luís Mejía takes a tortilla off the cookstove at his dwelling in Camotán. Picture: Isabella Rolz

The method of creating meals extra nutritious meals like is known as biofortification. “Biofortification focuses on including particular micronutrients which can be inadequate within the diets of low-resource populations of creating international locations that rely closely on a single staple meals, equivalent to maize,” mentioned Jere Haas, a vitamin knowledgeable at Cornell College in Ithaca, New York.

By distributing biofortified seeds, he mentioned, we are able to “right the micronutrient deficiencies of iron, zinc, and vitamin A that contribute to a excessive burden of ailments and disabilities in these low-resource populations”.

Each Luis and Antonio Mejía describe the F3 seed as “softer and extra plentiful” than different corn seeds. They’ve additionally observed that their households have turn into much less unwell in the previous few years, and their kids have extra vitality all through the day. 

Biofortification is a chic device to enhance the human well being of poor individuals

Antonio’s spouse, María Mejía, 30, who spends most of her day within the kitchen making the tortillas, mentioned that with the F3, she notices “that the tortillas are getting larger, extra yellowish and are heavier”, which makes the household really feel fuller.

The brand new seeds don’t remedy all their issues, although. “Biofortification is a chic device to enhance the human well being of poor individuals [but] it’s not excellent and must be mixed with different strategies as mandatory,” mentioned Stephan Haefele, an knowledgeable in sustainable soils and crops at Rothamsted Analysis, a non-profit analysis centre within the UK.

Regardless that the Mejía household appears more healthy since they began farming the biofortified seed, it’s not straightforward to measure how a lot of the elevated nutrient consumption is de facto taken up within the physique. For that reason, there’s a debate about how a lot biofortification helps to treatment the nutrient deficiency. 


Maria Mejía prepares tortillas, which have gotten fatter because of the brand new seed. Picture: Isabella Rolz

There could be trade-offs too. “In some instances, the biofortified crops yield barely [lower volumes of produce] than the very best regular varieties, by which case the dilemma is between feeding individuals sufficient energy or ample micronutrients,” mentioned Haefele.

There isn’t a reported threat in consuming conventionally biofortified crops. Nonetheless, not everybody will settle for them instantly. “A problem could be because of doable alteration within the style and look of edibles that have to be adopted by the inhabitants,” mentioned Abdul Wakeel, an assistant professor on the College of Agriculture Faisalabad in Pakistan.

Farmers want greater than only a one-off supply of seeds, too. “It’s a steady course of to keep up and maintain the biofortified varieties, and concurrently soils have to be fed with minerals, particularly if they’re poor in particular minerals,” mentioned Wakeel. 

The tortillas are getting larger, extra yellowish and are heavier

Semilla Nueva is gathering the information wanted to settle these debates and issues. It surveys the farmers who plant F3 seeds to see how a lot of the maize they devour year-round. Then, they work with farmers and laboratories to judge the dietary content material of the biofortified corn. Afterwards, they collaborate with INCAP, the area’s main vitamin assume tank, to go to households who eat it and accumulate meals consumption and vitamin knowledge from ladies and kids in these households.

“These surveys permit INCAP to create a mannequin of the lacking vitamins within the weight loss program of those populations and the way a lot they cut back these deficiencies when consuming our extra nutritious corn,” Bowen added. With that knowledge, Semilla Nueva estimates what remains to be missing within the weight loss program of those rural households.

Semilla Nueva has created partnerships and emergency programmes to offer seeds freed from cost to farmers from impoverished communities, such because the Mejía brothers. As well as, the organisation sells seeds at a low price to farmers’ associations. They appear glad: in 2021, 35 per cent of farmers replanted seeds from their F3 harvest. 


Guatemala’s poverty charge is round 52 per cent, highlighting the necessity for improved vitamin. Picture: Scott Umstattd

In 2021, with the help of American philanthropy and USAID’s Feed the Future initiative, Semilla Nueva reached 12,600 farmers and their households. It concentrates on farmers that plant corn for consuming at dwelling and small industrial farmers that promote to native markets. Thirty-six per cent of the farmers that develop the F3 seed reside beneath the Guatemalan nationwide poverty line, dwelling on lower than $3.64 a day.

At present, there are solely a handful of producers of biofortified maize seeds within the personal and public sectors. The seeds are distributed by a number of native and worldwide organisations equivalent to Semilla Nueva.

In line with Semilla Nueva´s anecdotal knowledge from the previous two years, 37.5 per cent of small producers who obtained donations of seeds in 2020 had been in a position to replant the hybrid seeds, utilizing seeds they collected from their very own harvest, and had been happy with the yields; 64 per cent plan to replant in 2022.

This agronomic observe will make a big impact on the inhabitants’s dietary standing

“This provides optimism in creating much less dependency on seed buy and donations, contemplating that the yields proceed to be increased than different biofortified open-pollinated varieties,” mentioned Bowen.

“We are actually in the intervening time of incorporating this technological breakthrough to the well being and vitamin of extra Guatemalans dwelling in excessive poverty,” mentioned Manolo Mazariegos, a vitamin knowledgeable at INCAP. Contemplating the restricted sources at its disposal, the venture is well-advanced, reaching 1000’s of households in Guatemala. 

Nevertheless, 1000’s of different farmers have to be reached as nicely. To repair this difficulty, “public insurance policies have to be strengthened and initiatives like this one must be thought-about an pressing public curiosity to fight malnutrition in under-resourced populations”, he added. 

This text is printed beneath a Artistic Commons licence. The original version appeared on Open Democracy.

Essential picture: Perry Grone

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