A recent article in The Progressive Farmer sounded an alarm about the re-emergence of the corn rootworm, a beetle was once called the “billion dollar pest” due to the big impact it has had on valuable corn crops and the costs farmers have racked up trying to control it. Read more
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Up until recently, a genetically modified organism was one that had its genetic materials engineered. Now, a new technology is completely blurring the line. It’s called gene editing, and it often involves “turning off” or deleting genes from a plant’s genome, as opposed to moving genes from one species to another. Read more
Last week, just before they adjourned for summer recess, Congress passed a bill that will establish national standards for labeling food containing ingredients which are genetically engineered (GE) also known as genetically modified organisms (or GMOs). President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming weeks.
Does this mean U.S. shoppers will soon see labels disclosing GMO ingredients on all food products? Not exactly. Read more
It’s not often that a conversation inspires an idea leading to a project that improves people’s lives and potentially transforms an industry. But that’s what happened to Jorge Gaviria, founder of Masienda. While serving as a host and translator at the G9 Chefs Summit at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY in 2013, Gaviria heard chefs discuss responsibly sourced ingredients. This inspired him to travel to Mexico and learn about the country’s rare heirloom corn varieties. He got the idea to work with smallholder farmers there to buy their corn, import it to the U.S., and supply restaurants, which would make delicious tortillas using the corn. In 2014, Gaviria founded Masienda, which is a combination of the words “masa” or corn flour and “tienda” or store, to accomplish his goal.
Sourced Landrace Non-GMO Corn Varieties
“I gained an appreciation for the storied history of corn,” Gaviria says. “The more I learned the more I wanted to create opportunities for farmers and to connect chefs to them.”
Mexico, particularly the southern state of Oaxaca, is known as the birthplace of corn.
“Mexico has been producing corn for 12,000 years,” Gaviria says.
The country has as many as 59 landraces, or locally adapted, traditional varieties of corn, according to Martha Willcox, Maize Landrace Improvement Coordinator at CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center), who has helped Gaviria with his project.
“Maize is the culture in Mexico,” she says. “Everyone eats maize every day, and there are 2000 culinary applications.”
Within those 59 landraces, Gaviria says there are “tons of varieties” of corn, including many colors such as white, blue, red, and yellow.
“There is a huge amount of diversity in the landraces,” Willcox says.
Masienda sources its corn from Oaxaca, whose corn varieties are among the most rare and diverse in Mexico. Gaviria buys the corn from the region’s smallholder farmers who have been growing these corn varieties for generations.
“These farmers are custodians of a very precious commodity,” says Alan Tank, former assistant vice president of the National Corn Growers Association and an adviser to Masienda. “The value it represents to them and to the world is nothing short of phenomenal.”
As an Iowa farmer, Tank appreciates the value of Mexico’s corn heritage. “Being part of family farm, I understand the need for biodiversity and preserving it,” he says.
Provides Needed Income to Farmers
The average size of the smallholder farms range from about 2 to 12 acres. Oaxaca’s farmers are poor with 62 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
Masienda’s purchase of the farmers’ excess corn—most of the corn they need for food—provides the farmers with income they would not otherwise receive.
“We are providing a fair price to the farmers for growing the corn and having a big impact on rural communities there,” Gaviria says.
“It’s a way to provide markets with good prices for farmers who have continued to grow these landraces,” Willcox says.
This year Masienda is working with 1200 farmers after starting with 100 in 2014. Willcox and CIMMYT helped Gaviria identify the best corn varieties, connect with the farmers, source the corn, and pay the farmers.
Masienda imports 10 to 15 different landraces. According to the company’s website, this is the first time in history these corn varieties have been available outside of the remote, indigenous communities of Oaxaca.
Masienda supplies corn to about 100 restaurants, mostly in the U.S. with a few in Canada.
One of those restaurants is Taquiza in Miami, Florida. Owner and chef Steve Santana uses blue and white bolita corn varieties to make masa flour, which is then made into tortillas and chips.
Santana is enthusiastic about Masienda’s corn. “Visually it’s really cool looking, and the flavor is unmatched,” he says.
Santana could buy much cheaper U.S. domestic corn but he prefers the heirloom varieties.
“I like knowing that farmers are getting treated well throughout the supply chain,” he says. “We are preserving a little history; this is pure food in its natural state.”
Non-GMO Market Opportunity
Masienda is growing exponentially. In just two years, the company’s corn imports grew from 40 tons in 2014 to 80 tons last year and 400 this year.
The company is also co-branding tortilla products with Chicago-based restaurant Frontera Grill and plans to sell its own branded products.
Gaviria says the market potential for the landrace corn is huge. According to the Tortilla Industry Association, the U.S. tortilla market is worth $12.5 billion.
Most tortillas in the U.S. are likely made from genetically modified corn since more than 90 percent of the corn grown here is GM. But with the soaring demand for non-GMO foods, there is great market potential for Mexico’s heirloom non-GMO corn.
Mexico has not approved production of GM corn, but last August a Mexican judge overturned a September 2013 ban on plantings of GM corn, paving the way for field trials of the controversial crop.
The concern is that GM corn production could cross pollinate and contaminate Mexico’s landrace corn varieties. In 2001, University of California scientist Ignacio Chapela published a paper documenting GMO contamination of some of Oaxaca’s landrace varieties. Willcox thinks this may have occurred when Mexican migrant workers brought back GM seed from the U.S. and planted it.
However, she says: “I haven’t seen evidence (of GMO contamination). I don’t worry about it. It’s still not legal in Mexico.”
Gaviria sees GMOs as a threat to Mexico’s corn biodiversity. “GMOs could have a fundamental impact on the tradition and scope of preservation,” he says.
Provides Vehicle to Preserve Landrace Corn
Gaviria has ambitious plans for Masienda. “We want to educate consumers on what corn can and should taste like and provide an alternative supply chain to what we’ve conventionally known in the U.S. for the last 50 plus years,” he says.
In the process Masienda aims to support smallholder farmers, sustainability, and biodiversity.
“What Masienda does and represents is nothing short of essential,” Tank says. “It provides a vehicle to ensure landrace genetics can be preserved and protected. It allows farmers to capture value. What better way to preserve the landraces than to create a market for them so they are preserved for history.”
Willcox says Masienda is an exciting project with a lot of potential: “It’s a conservation effort, a development effort, and a research effort.”
This post originally appeared in The Organic and Non-GMO Report.
When it released a 408-page report on genetically engineered (GE) crops yesterday, the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) said claims about GE crops—both pro and con—“have created a confusing landscape for the public and policy-makers.” But the report itself might not clear up all the confusion.
One year ago, an agency of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) declared that glyphosate (or Roundup), the world’s most widely used herbicide, probably causes cancer. Then, in the fall, the European Food Safety Agency’s (EFSA) responded with an assessment that disagreed with the WHO’s findings. Read more
A version of this post previously appeared on Modern Farmer.
Earlier this week the USDA reached out to Modern Farmer asking if Secretary Tom Vilsack, the only member of President Obama’s cabinet that has lasted through both terms in office, could give us a call. He wanted to plug the $17.6 million in grant money that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently made available for organic farming research, as well as a few other things he’s been working on to support the local food movement, or what the USDA often refers to as the “farm-identity preserved” market. But we got to chat about a few other things, too, like Vilsack’s recent trip to Cuba and his views on the GMO labeling debate. Read more
Today’s big food and agriculture companies work hard to protect their images. Companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Monsanto spend a lot of time and money diverting attention away from negative science related to their products and associating themselves with groups that promote healthy food and families.
For a long time, those tactics appeared to be working; but several of this year’s developments suggest that they might not work for much longer. In fact, you might say that 2015 was the year transparency re-entered the picture. Here’s a timeline of what happened.
Update: On Janury 28, 2016 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision, effectively putting the herbicide — and the new generation of GMO crops it was designed to be used with — back on the market.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made an unusual move—it changed its mind. In a legal ruling, the agency said it would revoke its approval of a controversial new herbicide called Enlist Duo, which combined the weed killers glyphosate (Roundup) and 2,4-D.
The EPA had approved the Enlist Duo just a year earlier, despite considerable public opposition and “grave concerns” from about 50 members of Congress. Made by Dow AgroSciences, Enlist Duo was specifically formulated to be used on corn and soybeans genetically engineered to resist it. And although it was initially approved for use in only six Midwestern states, the EPA extended that approval to an additional 10 states this past spring. Read more
Update: On January 29, 2016, the FDA banned imports of GMO salmon until the agency can publish guidelines for how it should be labeled.
Late last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved AquAdvantage salmon—the first edible genetically engineered animal to earn such an approval. The salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies, are genetically engineered (GE) with DNA that causes them to grow to market size much faster than other salmon. And while many advocates have shown concern over the fish in recent years, the FDA has declared it safe to eat.
The AquAdvantage salmon will only be raised in contained, inland facilities in Panama, from eggs produced in Canada. Once harvested, they will be imported for sale in the U.S. But exactly when they could show up on store shelves remains uncertain. “It is too early to discuss commercialization plans, but there are several paths to market that are being considered,” AquaBounty spokesperson Dave Conley told Civil Eats. Read more