A maize tour

SIRGEALC over, Marleni, David and I headed for CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre. That’s in Texcoco, about an hour’s drive from the hotel where we were staying in Mexico City (or three hours, unfortunately, on the way back). It turned out to be something of a maize odyssey. I’ll tell the story in pictures.

When we got to Texcoco, it was too early for lunch, but that didn’t stop us spending some time in the market sampling the local cuisine, as the quesadillas there are famous. This lady certainly made us some great ones. Note the two types of maize she’s using.


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Accepting yellow maize in Africa

ResearchBlogging.orgThe cuisines of Italy and southern and eastern Africa don’t have much in common. One thing they do share, though, is the concoction of boiled maize meal which we call polenta, Kenyans call ugali and Zimbabweans sadza. I remember my wife’s excitement — she’s from Kenya — as I first explained to her about polenta when we saw it listed in the menu of a Milanese restaurant in Rome many years back now.

That quickly turned to something close to disappointment — if not disgust — when she saw the stuff, in all its golden goodness. She was expecting it to be white. Yellow maize she associated with hard times, she explained. It came into the country as food aid in bad years when she was a girl, to be eaten by poor people.

I guess I thought this was something that was confined to Kenya, but a paper just out in Food Policy tells a very similar — though perhaps more statistically robust — story from Zimbabwe. The authors surveyed people’s attitudes to yelow maize in 360 households in three rural districts and the two main urban centres.

Yellow maize is rich in provitamin A, and could be a good way of combating vitamin A deficiency in vulnerable groups. But because it is mainly available in imported food aid, and also has a tendency to develop a bad taste if not handled properly, people just don’t like eating it — and don’t grow it. The authors suggest that nutritional education aimed at low-income groups might stimulate local production and consumption. But I think the social stigma associated with it will be difficult to dislodge. At least if my wife’s attitude is anything to go by.

Incidentally, when I talked to Jeremy about this post he said that there is a clear geographic divide in the USA between regions which prefer white and yellow maize, but he couldn’t remember the details. And I wasn’t able to find anything online. Maybe someone out there can help.

War bad for seeds, seeds good for peace

We asked Jacob van Etten to write about war and agricultural biodiversity after seeing his great website. It’s just coincidence that he sent the following piece in right after we blogged about flooding and genetic erosion. Sometimes things work out that way. Thanks, Jacob. We’re always open to guest contributions…

War can be disastrous for the environment. Think about forest destruction in Kurdistan or burning oil wells in Iraq. But we know very little about agrobiodiversity losses caused by armed conflict. Some time ago, a team of geographers wrote an alarming article about maize biodiversity in Guatemala, where a war raged in the 1980s. They claimed that war and modernization had caused a massive disappearance of indigenous maize varieties. This was based on a quick study of several townships.

However, in a recent restudy, which involved more intensive sampling in a single township, it became clear that several maize varieties were still hiding in the corners. Variety loss was in fact rather low and no varieties were reported to be lost due to the war. What seemed to have changed over the last decades was the social distribution of seeds and knowledge, suggestive of a disrupted social exchange network.

As other studies in Rwanda and West Africa have given similar results, a general picture seems to emerge. The problem is often not the physical survival of seeds and varieties during war. They may be conserved by those who stay in the village or recovered after the violence from fields and secret storages. The main problem is that war destroys the social and economic tissue that underpins agricultural diversity management. Mistrust and poverty will limit the circulation of seeds, leading to access problems and a fragmented local knowledge system. There may thus be a lot of sense in a project of CARE by Sierra Leone that turned the problem of seeds and war on its head. It used the distribution of seeds as a way to evoke discussion on the principles of social exclusion and the causes of the armed conflict.