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Argentina seeks climate benefits in traditional maize varieties

by Ana Belluscio | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 20 December 2011 19:56 GMT

Hybrid corn is expensive for small farmers and less tolerant of drier climate conditions

CORDOBA, Argentina (AlertNet) - Scientists in Argentina are working side by side with small farmers to recover traditional maize varieties that could help them adapt to climate change but have been largely displaced by modern hybrids.

Maize is not just a staple food in this South American nation, but a major export. Argentina’s annual output of 22 million tonnes makes it the world’s fifth largest producer of the crop, and its second largest exporter.

But volume does not equate with diversity. The country’s more than 40 indigenous corn varieties have been jettisoned for hybrids – cross-bred plants that combine desirable characteristics - which now account for almost 99 percent of maize production. And that makes output vulnerable to changing climatic conditions.

“Native cultivars have been replaced by hybrid crops because (hybrids) have better yield, performance, stability and are more resistant to certain diseases,” explains Guillermo Eyherabide, coordinator of the grain programme at the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA).

These advantages may not persist, however, as global warming affects Argentina’s environment. Hybrids thrive less in the dry conditions that are increasingly affecting the country, and soil changes caused by deforestation also pose a challenge.

“Semi-arid (land) and drylands are progressing faster than genetics,” says María Cristina Nazar, director of the special maize programme at the National University of Córdoba. “I believe hybrids will not be able to grow beyond the most fertile lands.”

Nazar and her team are working to improve and propagate native varieties of maize. Their broader genetic substrate (underlying material) makes them more adaptable to degraded soils and weather variations than hybrids, she says.

Experts say some native varieties may also be well suited to dealing with climate change in the longer term. According to Eyherabide, preserving genetic resources may eventually help mitigate problems linked with shifting rainfall patterns and temperatures, or extreme weather events.

“There are changes in the relative importance of pathologies and pests affecting crops,” he explains. “Local varieties, preserved in gene banks, may have genes conferring tolerance or resistance to these factors that are likely to be modified as a result of climate change.”

COOKING AND SCHOOLS

Understanding the advantages of traditional maize varieties is one thing, but getting people to grow and consume them is another. Nazar and her team set up their maize programme in 2009 to tackle the decline in traditional knowledge about preparing maize as a foodstuff.

“We observed that, when mothers and grandmothers started working outside the house to increase the family’s income, the knowledge of how to prepare food such as polenta or porridge was lost with their absence,” says Nazar.

Her programme is also promoting traditional maize varieties to high-school students by providing seeds to start corn cultivation in school orchards. The schools involved are located in the northern part of Córdoba province - its driest and poorest areas, where in past decades maize cultivation has been replaced by transgenic soy bean production.

“We are trying to reintroduce maize crops again in this area and to encourage its preparation,” says Nazar.

Several varieties of seed, including purple, white and red corn, as well as pop corn and pigeon corn, are offered to the schools at no cost. Students are educated about the health benefits and affordability of traditional varieties. For the coming year, they are preparing a cookbook with traditional maize recipes which will be distributed free in the province.

Apart from motivating families to use more maize in their cooking, Nazar and her team are also targeting small regional producers.

“We are trying to incentivise small farms to plant 10 to 20 hectares” (25 to 50 acres), thereby slowly reinserting different corn cultivars into the regional market, she says.

Nazar does not expect many regional producers to switch over completely to non-hybrid maize crops, but her team is also working with local peasants to promote the initiative.

HIGH-COST HYBRIDS

Daniel Alonso has a small farm in the province of Buenos Aires, south of Córdoba. He belongs to a farmers’ association that promotes an agro-ecological model, using no pesticides, hybrid seeds or synthetic fertilisers.

Alonso explains that non-hybrid maize plantations yield only 60 to 70 percent as much as a hybrid crop, but that does not necessarily mean traditional varieties generate less of a profit.

Hybrid seeds are sold by private companies along with a technological package including synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Farmers cannot obtain seeds from hybrid maize, so they must buy the package each year, at a cost of up to half their crop’s revenues.

According to Alonso, this makes a non-hybrid model more cost-effective for small farms with 2 to 100 hectares (5 to 250 acres) of land.

For Alonso, growing traditional maize varieties makes environmental as well as economic sense. To maintain soil productivity, he rotates crops and designates sections of land for livestock grazing, which helps keep the soil stable and fertile without using chemicals.

“I’m working like my great-grandfather did in the 19th century, except he used oxen and I work with a tractor,” says Alonso. “In the end (it) is more profitable than using the technological package.”

Although many producers are reluctant to swap maize varieties, Eyherabide believes Argentina’s traditional cultivars may still have a chance in the market.

“Local varieties have strategic value, and there are small market niches looking for certain qualities, where these native varieties may be profitable,” he says.

Ana Belluscio is based in Buenos Aires, and writes on science and environmental issues across the region.  

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