Seed companies and farmers improve maize yields in Mexico

The Mexican maize seed industry has upgraded its portfolio of products to better address the needs of smallholder farmers. More than 50 local companies have seen sales increase by 70 percent in the last 5 years. In 2016 alone, these small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) sold over 1.1 million bags of 100 maize hybrids.

Mexican seed companies have traditionally marketed obsolete maize hybrids and open pollinated varieties on a land area of about 1.25 million hectares, representing 42 percent of the seed market in Mexico. At the same time, large multinational seed companies dominated a market of 1.75 million hectares in the best rain-fed and irrigated regions of Mexico. Meanwhile, Mexican smallholder farmers have struggled to raise their maize yields.

Now, most Mexican seed companies offer high-yielding, stress-tolerant hybrids adapted to rain-fed conditions. These hybrids yield from two-to-four times the average yield of obsolete varieties in target areas. Three larger local companies are now challenging multinational companies’ share of the most valuable markets in the country, fostering competition that will eventually push seed prices down. Access to better seed in new areas could increase average maize yields on a scale that would lead Mexico to become self-sufficient in the production of its most important crop.

Today, local companies control 30 percent of the seed market in Mexico and their total sales of improved seed have increased by 70 percent, since first partnering with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in 2011.

Bags of hybrid seed marketed in Mexico.

“Improved maize seed is grown on 3 million hectares across Mexico, of the total of 8 million hectares sown to the crop,” said Arturo Silva, leader of the International Maize Improvement Consortium for Latin America. “As a result of public and private efforts, the market of improved seed will grow to cover 5.5 million hectares by 2020.”

These encouraging results are the product of a partnership with public research institutions and more than 50 local seed companies that annually test dozens of high-yielding, disease-resistant and climate resilient maize hybrids developed by breeders in the Sustainable Modernization of Agriculture (MasAgro) project, which is supported by Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA).

After five years of collaborative field trials and pre-commercial tests since 2011, 49 new white and yellow CIMMYT hybrids were released to the Mexican seed sector. These materials contributed to more than 500,000 of the 1.1 million bags of improved seed sold by Mexican companies in 2016.

These maize hybrids have been specifically adapted to the needs of smallholder farmers and are put to the test on hundreds of sites across Mexico. Seed companies help farmers by hosting training sessions on hybrid seed production and commercialization.

Farmers select ears of the Zapolote Chico landrace in Santa Rosa de Lima, Oaxaca.

Participatory native maize improvement in Mexico

Maize is grown in highly-diverse settings throughout Mexico, often by smallholder farmers who prefer specific types of grain for local dishes or use maize plants in varied ways. CIMMYT and its partners work with these farmers to raise the productivity and profitability of landrace maize and heirloom varieties, which have often been grown for generations in tough, local conditions and carry genes for hardiness and other traits of interest.

This participatory breeding work, or breeding that involves close farmer-researcher collaboration to bring about plant genetic improvement within a species, is conducted in these communities through the MasAgro project, in which traditional landraces are selected by farmers with the assistance of Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture, and Livestock Research (INIFAP), the Chapingo Autonomous University and CIMMYT scientists. Selection and crosses are made using the best samples from farmers in the community and, where needed, seed collections from CIMMYT’s germplasm bank or breeding lines and populations. This allows communities to develop new, improved maize varieties with higher yields and stress resistance, while preserving valued landrace traits such as preferred grain and cooking quality.

In 2016, participatory trials in 9 target communities were conducted in the state of Oaxaca, involving 240 men and 160 women farmers from 46 communities who attended multiple training events.

“We are targeting the poorest and most underserved farmers and have helped to increase their yields,” said Martha Willcox, maize landrace improvement coordinator at CIMMYT. “This has helped communities increase their local food security as they no longer have to purchase additional maize to eat, and has allowed some to access markets specific to landrace maize at prices higher than hybrid grain.”

Added to other benefits, improved livelihoods from these efforts have allowed some farmers to stay with their families all year, rather than migrating to the United States to work.

This work was conducted as part of the MasAgro project in collaboration with Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture, and Livestock Research, Chapingo Autonomous University, Antonio Narro Agrarian Autonomous University, the Agricultural Research and Training Institute in Mexico State, the Autonomous University of Mexico State, and supported by Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food and the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE).

Text: Ricardo Curiel, Jennifer Johnson

Contributors: Arturo Silva, Martha Willcox

Photos: Peter Lowe, Martha Willcox

Graphics: Gerardo Mejía

Editors: Bianca Beks, G. Michael Listman, Julie Mollins, Geneviève Renard

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