Ancient maize landraces Please modern palates and pRofit smallholder farmers

Longstanding initiatives with national partners and farmers to boost the productivity and profitability of maize landraces in Mexico, the global center of origin for the crop and its sister species teocintle, have recently found renewed impetus from an emerging niche market – exclusive restaurants in the USA and Mexico that use the landrace grain for specialty dishes.

In 2014, a number of farmers from the state of Oaxaca sold grain of their native varieties to Masienda, a New York-based company that markets the grain to chefs in leading New York restaurants, off erring farmers a premium as high as 25 percent over normal maize grain prices.

Oaxacan farmers review native maize varieties before shipment

“Grain of some landraces provides superior quality and flavor for tortillas and other foods,” said Martha Willcox, CIMMYT maize landrace improvement coordinator, who has been working with farmers and national research partners through MasAgro, Mexico’s program with CIMMYT for the sustainable intensification of agriculture. “The problem is the landraces on average yield less than improved varieties or hybrids and farmers normally receive no quality premium, when they sell the grain in conventional markets.”

Worse, said Willcox, is that these varieties, which were developed over millennia through farmer selection and once covered the Mexican countryside, may eventually end up as mere seed collections in a germplasm bank.

“The landraces are actually a world treasure and embody much of maize’s extraordinary genetic diversity, but they’re disappearing as subsistence farmers migrate in search of better livelihoods,” she explained. “The interest from United States and Mexico City haute cuisine markets has instilled new pride in farmers and motivated them to improve their productivity through participatory plant breeding and adopting better farming practices.”

Old maize landraces on the menu and in the media spotlight

The present work is rooted in a joint effort begun in the 1990s by Suketoshi Taba, CIMMYT maize breeder and head of maize genetic resources during 1975-2011, with Flavio Aragón Cuevas of Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture and Livestock Research (INIFAP) and Humberto Castro García of Mexico’s Chapingo Autonomous University (UACh).

Together they developed a dynamic approach whereby landraces were improved for yield and other traits while conserving farmer valued factors like grain quality, with direct community participation. Despite limited financial support, Aragón, Castro, and their colleagues, including Willcox, have managed to refine and expand the scope of the efforts.

“The topic of native maize races has recently gotten national and international attention, partly due to concerns around the possible introduction of genetically modified maize in Mexico,” said Aragón. “There needs to be a strategy to select and improve the right native varieties for the right niches. If you try to hold onto everything, you will lose the best.”

The researchers’ studies have shown that, using the best local variety plus proper management – including targeted use of fertilizer and optimal plant density and number of seeds per sowing point – most farmers can harvest enough to feed their households and have surplus grain to sell.

“We give farmers hard data about what can work best in their villages, including economic cost-benefit studies, which is beyond the support that extension normally provides,” said Willcox. Current support to farmers, she adds, tends to focus on hybrid maize production and is not easy for smallholders to access.

“We need to get policymakers reliable information about why farmers choose what they do” - Martha Willcox

Helping farmers to organize and link to institutions has been a focus for Castro. “We’re working to segment target zones, producers, and technology levels to design and deliver solutions,” he said. “A common, urgent need among smallholders is for good storage facilities, both to maintain household food supplies and to hold and sell surplus grain when markets are favorable.”

The young entrepreneurs involved in marketing native maize to restaurants see good potential. “A restaurant offering 100 meals a day would buy from 500 and 1,000 kilos of maize per month,” said Jorge Gaviria, a Masienda founder, who hopes to add 50 or more additional restaurants to his client list in 2015.
Editors-in-chief Geneviève Renard, Michael Listman Creative Director/design Clyde R. Beaver III Slate Design Lead Sam Storr Graphics Eliot Sanchez, Marcelo Ortiz, Bosen Zhou Principal writing/editing Michael Listman, Geneviève Renard, Julie Mollins, Sam Storr, Jennifer Johnson, Katherine Lutz, Katelyn Roett, Ashwamegh Banerjee. Contributors Tripti Agarwal, Lone Badstue, Frédéric Baudron, José Juan Caballero, Ma. Concepion Castro, Vijay Chaikam, Uran Chung, Ricardo Curiel, Anuradha Dhar, K.C. Dilli, Nirmal Govindan, Muhammad Imtiaz, Moti Jaleta, M.L. Jat, Arun Joshi, Promil Kapoor, Petr Kosina, Mauricio Malpica Aranda, Esther Mendoza Ramos, Hae Koo, Surabhi Mittal, Alexey Morgounov, Wandera Ojanji, Natalia Palacios, Roberto Javier Peña, Eloise Phipps, S.P. Poonia, Yahya Rauf, Matthew Reynolds, Rajiv Sharma, Miriam Shindler, Florence Sipalla, Sam Storr, Adefris Teklewold, Kindie Tesfaye, Brenda Wawa, Martha Willcox, Wren Media , Patrick Yadav, P.H. Zaidi, Bosen Zhou. Photographers Cover: CIMMYT Archives. Inside this issue: Ashwamegh Banerjee, Frédéric Baudron, Clyde Beaver, Iván Vázquez Cruz, Xochiquetzal Fonseca, ML Jat, Petr Kosina, Peter Lowe, Ranak Martin, Allen McHugh, Garry Rosewarne, Alfredo Saénz, Sam Storr, Anne Wangalachi, Patrick Wall, Martha Willcox and CIMMYT archives.

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