Biofortified maize provides nutrition and opportunities for coffee farmers in Colombia

October 09, 2020

Biofortified staple crops benefit the food supply chain, from the producers to the consumers — reducing the risk of being compromised by pandemics or other threats.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that people everywhere need good nutrition to be resilient in the face of health threats and lead productive lives.

For smallholder farming families and other vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income countries, nutrition deficiencies can be particularly debilitating, threatening these families’ health, livelihood, and ability to withstand shocks, including pandemics.

HarvestPlus and its partners address this by getting micronutrient-rich, biofortified varieties of staple crops on the plates of these farming families and other vulnerable populations.

In Colombia, 13 percent of children under five are stunted (low height for their age.) Zinc plays an essential role in maintaining optimal childhood growth and a healthy immune system. HarvestPlus released the first hybrid variety of zinc maize in the country in 2019, offering an opportunity for additional nutrition and income for the country’s coffee farmers.

Such health-boosting varieties of maize are aimed at resource-poor families or rural communities who rely on staple crops for much of their diet because they can’t afford to eat nutritionally diverse diets.

Developed by HarvestPlus and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the hybrid variety of zinc maize contains 28 percent more zinc than non biofortified maize. Arepas (corn cakes) made with this new hybrid can be considered a good source of zinc, since the daily consumption of a zinc-biofortified maize arepa would provide up to two times more zinc than those made with commercial maize.

By enhancing the micronutrient content of staple crops like maize, regular consumption improves nutrition and health, giving consumers further protection from risks like viral outbreaks. 

The biofortified crop also provides livelihood benefits to the farmers who grow it. In Colombia, more than 540,000 families are dedicated to coffee production thanks in part to the country’s ideal geography for growing coffee beans.

In addition to adapting to the Colombian coffee zone altitude, the SGBIOH2 variety of maize has a high potential yield of up to 10 tons per hectare (20,000 pounds/acre) in the Colombian coffee zone. It is also tolerant to diseases such as gray spot and the cercospora fungi, and has crystalline (hard texture) grain demanded by the national industry.

Further, it is an opportunity for coffee growers to generate greater income — and therefore buffer the future unforeseen risks inherent in agriculture. Up to two maize harvests can be completed before the first coffee harvest, in the lots renewed by sowing conventional zoca (the stem of the coffee plant).

Getting this seed into the hands of coffee growers will be carried out in partnership with the Colombian company Semillas Guerrero Asociados that sells bags of 60,000, 6,000 and 3,000 seeds.

The release coincides with Columbia’s increasing focus on food security as part of a strategic plan presented at Agroexpo 2019 called Maíz para Colombia. This nutritional security component of the plan targets 50 percent of the population consuming zinc-biofortified maize by 2030.

Achieving this makes it a priority to have an alliance between the public and private sectors and civil society to increase the demand for nutritious and productive maize in Colombia.

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