COVID-19 in Guatemala: Malnutrition Grows with the Case Count

Driving on the highway in Guatemala is devastating during the current crisis. As you wade through the numerous Government mandated travel check-points, you’ll be confronted by the more immediate dire human impacts of the crisis. Hundreds of families are lining the highways waving white flags. The international symbol of surrender has become a desperate cry for help in Guatemala, signaling the need for immediate food assistance. Since COVID-19 began, Guatemala’s acute childhood malnutrition rate has tripled. ¹  UNICEF predicts that maternal mortality will double during the crisis. ²  As the caseload grows – reaching 5,586 to date – the Government is issuing even stricter regulations. On May 14th, President Giammattei announced weekly country shut downs, banning all vehicle travel and mandating everyone aside from essential workers stay indoors each weekend. Markets and supermarkets are operating on limited hours. A potential two week total shutdown looms on the horizon. While necessary to control the spread of the virus, these restrictions threaten to push Guatemala’s most vulnerable families deeper into poverty and food crisis. The World Food Programme reports that over a million people could not meet their food needs on a daily basis prior to COVID and this number is expected to grow. ³  Reaching people with better nutrition could not be more urgent.

People wave banderas blancas (white flags) in Guatemala city, indicating the need for immediate food assistance. Photo Credit: Oliver de Ros.

 

Recognizing the need to reach Guatemala’s poorest farmers during the crisis, Semilla Nueva has launched a COVID-19 emergency response program to provide free seed to communities experiencing food crisis. We began seed distribution efforts in April to ensure we reached families ahead of Guatemala’s main May and June corn planting season. This is a critical window – what families plant in the next few months will determine what their families and the country eat for the next year. As Latin America becomes the new epicenter of the virus, we need to prepare farmers for difficult months ahead. As part of our emergency response, we will distribute over 19,000 pounds of seed to subsistence families. This is enough to produce over 3.8 million pounds of nutritious corn, or 76 million health tortillas! Each family will receive 10 pounds of seed; enough to cover a family’s food for a year.

We are working with farmer cooperatives across Chiquimula, a predominantly Mayan region with high poverty and malnutrition rates, to distribute the seed to vulnerable families. These farmer families traditionally rely on low yielding seeds. Under normal circumstances, they must supplement their harvests by buying additional grain in the market to feed their families. With the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, most of these families won’t be able to afford additional grain. Families will be entirely dependent on what they’re able to grow this season to meet their families nutrition needs for the year.


A woman  in Chiquimula receiving her free corn seed from Semilla Nueva’s COVID-19 emergency seed distribution program. Photo credit: Pedro Martinez.

 

Our seed’s higher yields give farmers the chance to take control of their families well-being. The seed will provide far more grain than the low yielding seeds these farmers normally use and farmers will be able to produce enough food for their family for the year. All year their families will eat tortillas with more zinc, iron, and protein. Our seed’s higher yields also give farmers a chance to sell extra grain and increase their incomes – a rare opportunity amidst a global pandemic. Subsistence farmers who grow the seed can generate up to $100 USD more annually. This program is transformative in the face of COVID-19. Families who are facing immediate food crisis are empowered to produce their own food and increase their incomes. Semilla Nueva is proud to show up for the farmers being hardest hit by COVID-19.

 

  1. Ana Lucia Ola. Forbes. 12 May 2020. https://forbescentroamerica.com/2020/05/12/se-triplica-cifra-de-ninos-con-desnutricion-aguda-en-guatemala/
  2.  Ana Lucia Ola. Prensa Libre. 15 May 2020. https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/comunitario/muertes-maternas-e-infantiles-aumentaran-como-efecto-secundario-del-covid-19/
  3.  Anastasio Maloney. reliefweb. 21 Jan 2020. https://reliefweb.int/report/guatemala/guatemalas-children-bear-brunt-prolonged-drought-and-rising-heat

Guatemala responds to COVID-19 – We will help farmers feed the country

Dear Friends,

We’re writing to you from Guatemala, where we’re dealing with the beginning of a local COVID-19 outbreak. There have been 25 cases to date. We commend the Guatemalan Government’s swift response and precautionary measures to control the outbreak. Within 3 days of case zero, Guatemala closed the airport and shortly thereafter the borders. There is a military curfew in place each day, restricting non essential movement from 4 PM to 4 AM. Gatherings – like those we use to meet potential farmers and sell our seed – have been banned until further notice.

Vendors in Guatemala City’s Central Market. Photographer: Esteban Biba

While the world faces mounting challenges, we have also witnessed the immense power of solidarity, human ingenuity, and bravery in the past weeks. Amongst the frontline heroes are our farmers. Farmers are showing up for us each day – growing the food that seems to be ever more rapidly flying off the shelves. In these times, we must ask ourselves – how will we show up for them?

In Guatemala, a country where corn accounts for upwards of 50% of the rural diet, over 700,000 corn farmers cannot work from home. Their work is critical to feed the nation and their families. The majority of smallholder corn farmers in Guatemala live in poverty. With agriculture as the primary source of income for the majority of these families, they cannot afford to absorb productivity losses associated with global crises. These farmers and their communities are especially vulnerable to the economic losses we are witnessing all over the world. Living on less than one dollar a day, members of Guatemalan farmer families don’t have a safety net.

Semilla Nueva remains committed to putting these farmers and their families first, especially as May marks the planting season that produces the majority of rural Guatemala’s food. We are following all necessary measures to ensure our staff remains safe while simultaneously exploring new and creative ways to support the farmers we serve. We’ve reoriented our marketing and farmer engagement strategy to mobile platforms – using phone, text message, and messaging services like Whatsapp. We’re complementing this with alternative outreach like banners, billboards, and radio.

This year, more than ever before, our work is essential. In the coming months, we will continue to promote and sell our biofortified, iron, protein, and zinc enriched corn to smallholders farmers in Guatemala. Our goal for 2020 remains; we will work tirelessly to improve the incomes and nutrition of nearly 8,000 farmer families. Our corn has the potential to:

  • Shield against the extreme economic shock Guatemala will face in the wake of COVID-19 – In Guatemala, over 70% of the population works in the informal economy and the majority of farmers will be pushed further into poverty. Our corn can increase farmer incomes and mitigate some of these effects.
  • Improve food security amidst crisis – The regions most likely to be hit by an impending food crisis in Guatemala are also the regions where we work with communities and sell seed. By ensuring farmers have seed on time, we can increase their income and improve their family nutrition – fighting food insecurity through economic and agronomic means.
  • Boost the immune systems of those who will need it the most – Our corn has 39% more zinc than traditional corn and can close the average zinc gap in rural Guatemalan diets. Zinc is critical to immune system function and has been shown to decrease the mortality rate of respiratory illness and pneumonia in elderly populations and pneumonia in children–considerations that are of vital importance as we prepare for the coming months.

Corn farmer in rural Guatemala. Photographer: Sarah Mueller

In the darkest of times, we have the opportunity to be the best versions of ourselves. Every day and especially today, we are grateful to act in solidarity with Guatemala’s farmers. Thank you for being partners on this journey.

 

Saludos,

The Semilla Nueva Team

Why I switched to Fortaleza F3: A farmer’s testimony

Don Jorge grew up in a corn farming family in the state of Huehutenango of Guatemala’s Western Highlands. He began farming at a young age and continues to do so now. He is the primary caregiver in a house of 17 people. Like most corn farmers in the area, Don Jorge relies on the corn he grows to feed his family for the year. While Don Jorge’s easy smile tells another story, the past several years proved challenging with prolonged droughts damaging his yields and threatening his ability to provide enough food for his family.  Before switching to Forteleza F3, a high performing hybrid seed, Don Jorge planted criollo (a traditional, non-hybrid seed). Criollo seeds are cheaper but also provide lower yields. Additionally, they do not perform well against extreme weather events – such a prolonged droughts and storms – which are increasingly affecting Guatemalan farmers due to the effects of climate change. For Don Jorge, recent years of criollo harvest would only provide enough food to cover his family’s needs for half the year, forcing him to supplement by buying more seed to cover the rest of the year.

Two years ago, facing another impending food shortage due to criollo’s performance, Don Jorge asked his son Jorge Jr. to go into town and but additional criollo seeds. In town, Jorge Jr. met Semilla Nueva co-founder Trinidad (Trini) Recinos. Trini understood the challenges facing Jorge Jr.’s family – they needed an affordable alternative to criollo that could produce higher yields. Trini presented F3’s higher yield potential, which Jorge Jr. found outweighed the cost difference. Don Jorge was disappointed with his son’s decision to move from his historical brand, criollo H3. However the investment had already been made, so they planted Fortelaza for the first time in the 2017 growing season. When the crops began to grow, exhibiting a much higher yield and stronger drought resistance, disappointment in the decision to switch quickly gave way to joy and gratitude. Fortleza’s improved performance meant that Don Jorge would once again be able to provide enough corn for his family’s yearly consumption. Don Jorge recalls even having to ask forgiveness from his son for getting so upset on his seed purchase. 

On a recent visit to Don Jorge’s land, he proudly showed Semilla Nueva staff his crops and explained that he  had chosen to remain with Fortaleza F3 for the past 2 years because of its outstanding yield performance. Don Jorge maintains a demonstration parcel; demonstration parcels are a common marketing technique in agriculture to show the benefits of a certain crop to potential farmers. As a community leader and a self proclaimed Forteleza advocate, Don Jorge agreed to be one of our demo parcel farmers and showcase the benefits of F3  to his neighbors and potential buyers. 

Don Jorge spoke to his personal experience with Forteleza F3. The stalks, Don Jorge explained, don’t waver or break in the case of  high winds or rain. This resistance to storms is known as lodging resistance. Additionally, Fortleza’s drought resistant quality was critical to ensure his family’s food security for the year. The area had recently gone through a  20 day drought during the rainy season. These events are precarious for farmers who depend on predictable rains and harvest for their family’s diet. However, for Don Jorge, Forteleza far outperformed criollo in withstanding drought conditions.. In comparison, the criollo crops were short, weak, and experienced significant pest infestations. s. 

Don Jorge enthusiastically shares his testimony about  the benefits of Forteleza with his neighbors and the local farming community. When he originally told his neighbors about the improved harvest, they were hesitant to  believe him. They couldn’t believe that it was possible for corn to grow so strongly in drought and storm conditions. . When asked how did he finally convince them that it was corn, he responded “La gente tiene que verlo para creer.” (The people have to see it to believe it.) Semilla Nueva is grateful that Don Jorge continues to manage his demo parcel and invite his community to see the performance of Forteleza first-hand! 

Growing biofortified corn is anything but predictable.

When it comes to planting corn seeds, sometimes things don’t always go as planned. Experiencing days of drought or having pesticide problems are usually the more common issues faced; however, every once in a while mechanical problems arise and have the potential to threaten the entire planting process. This was the case in Semilla Nueva’s experimental center in the municipality of San Jose La Maquina, Suchitepeque. Luckily, our experienced and quick thinking staff knew exactly how to handle the problem and ensure that a day of work on the fields was not lost.

Adolfo Pop Caal is one of Semilla Nueva’s field workers on our experimental plots. He works to maintain our biofortified corn crops in those areas and ensure that despite all outside factors, our crops are still able to flourish and thrive. This requires regular cutting of the grass to maintain the plot. However, when Adolfo tried to start the machine, as usual, to cut the grass one day, it wouldn’t start. Instead of throwing in the towel losing an entire day of field work, Adolfo used his quick thinking and recalled on traditional agriculture techniques. 

Adolfo got right to work and pulled out a very sharp machete  (large knife) and garabato (Guatemalan slang for a wooden hook) to cut the grass manually. Using the garabato in his right hand to grab the long blades of grass, he used his left to whack away at them with the machete. This technique is actually the traditional way of cutting grass in Guatemala. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see workers walking to work in the morning all over the country with machetes hanging off their backs.

Adolfo exemplified his determination and commitment to the job that day. Here at Semilla Nueva, we couldn’t be prouder of our workers on the fields and the dedication they have for the art of harvesting our biofortified corn seed every day.

Launching a Brand: Fortaleza

Juan Manuel “Elotón” and Noé Estrada “Don Fortaleza”, two members of our sales team — setting up for the field day.

It’s a really exciting time for us here at Semilla Nueva. We’re currently in the midst of farmer field days, where we’re showing off our newest Fortaleza corn seeds. Fortaleza is our biofortified seed brand, one of our main strategies at Semilla Nueva, that competes in the market undifferentiated from other seeds.

Continue reading “Launching a Brand: Fortaleza”

14 Organizations Sign Agreement to Unite Efforts for a Biofortified Guatemala

On Wednesday, August 13th 2015, 14 organizations came together to sign an agreement and officially launch the Plataforma BioFORT in Guatemala. The event was held in the sunny garden of Guatemala’s Ministry of Agriculture (MAGA) and featured brief presentations by several representatives from the founding institutions. Plataforma BioFORT is a multi-institutional effort to coordinate knowledge, resources, and manpower across organizations in Guatemala to promote and further develop biofortified crops. The ultimate goal is to bring these highly nutritious crops to more rural families and reduce malnutrition rates across the country. Continue reading “14 Organizations Sign Agreement to Unite Efforts for a Biofortified Guatemala”

Semilla Nueva Joins the International Conversation on Sustainable Agriculture

The walls of the Semilla Nueva office are lined with photos of the various “generations” of the organization –a pictorial view of the people and projects that have been part of our journey. Scanning through them evokes many of the same reactions as looking at one’s own childhood photo album – both feelings of pride as to how far we’ve come, as well as questions like, “how did we think THAT was a good idea?” Continue reading “Semilla Nueva Joins the International Conversation on Sustainable Agriculture”

Semilla Nueva Looks for Effective Solutions to Malnutrition

Malnutrition and the Potential of QPM in Guatemala

In Semilla Nueva’s communities, only 1 out of every 2 children is malnourished. The word “only” sounds disturbing in that sentence, but 50% sounds like a reasonable figure when compared to 70%, or the percentage of children that face chronic malnutrition within rural indigenous communities in Guatemala. Guatemala struggles with hunger on a frightening scale – ranked as the country with the 4th highest rate of chronic malnutrition.

Continue reading “Semilla Nueva Looks for Effective Solutions to Malnutrition”