It is not every day that you find yourself entering a room filled with humble farmers donning denim and cowboy boots alongside titled professionals in tailored suits. A space in which findings shared by researchers are followed by off-the-cuff open discussion, with moments of culture clash as seemingly opposite worlds collide.
This was the scene that Semilla Nueva participated in on Thursday, February 18th, as we helped lead first annual meeting of the Plataforma BioFORT. The Plataforma, which translates smoothly to Platform, is a network of international development organizations, government institutions, universities, farmer associations, and agricultural NGOs with a common mission: to promote crops biofortified with nutrients lacking in the Guatemalan diet. Members work together to share research and educational materials, , discuss strategy, and build collaborative projects.
Guatemalans suffer from the highest level of chronic malnutrition in Latin America, and the third highest in the entire world (after Yemen and Afghanistan). Most rural Guatemalans live off of corn and beans, and internationally biofortified versions of these two crops have been proven to increase incomes and positively impact malnutrition. Plataforma members understand that now, more than ever, it is crucial to unite to find sustainable solutions for the most vulnerable populations. Everyone in the network is connected by the fight for smallholder farmers and the health of the next generation of Guatemala.
To kick off the event, Karen Lopez, the Development & Engagement Coordinator for Plataforma BioFORT who has become an integral member of our Semilla Nueva staff member since January, presented on Quality Protein Maize (QPM) and iron-fortified beans. These are two nutritious crops that can easily be integrated into the Guatemalan diet. Representatives from The Guatemalan Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology (ICTA) next presented new plans for expanding biofortification in Guatemala to target the root causes of malnutrition. Karen has worked closely with the ICTA, which oversees a project sponsored by HarvestPlus that supports her role with the Plataforma.
As Secretary of Plataforma BioFORT, which was founded this past August, Semilla Nueva took on a role as moderator of the fascinating and varied discussion that unfolded after the presentations. Partners brought their diverse experiences to the table, as local agronomy professors dove into the genetic makeup of crop varieties while farmers spoke of their own experiences testing certain biofortified crops firsthand. Scientists who led some of the first efforts with biofortified crops decades ago talked of their failures and asked all present to think about how to do it better. NGOs, too, referenced their own shortcomings, and a government official went so far as to point out deficiencies in the government’s capacities, and asked for collaboration in overcoming them.
This kind of collaboration is the dream of countless development organizations. NGOS, government organizations, and other institutions often work in silos, unwilling to put in the energy required to unite and pool resources. When institutions fail to connect it can be counterproductive. They frequently duplicate efforts and miss out on sharing valuable practices. Even if they work their tails off, there are resources they can take advantage of that they completely fail to see. The Plataforma is changing this through commitments from organizations from all corners of society. Though at times there are divergent opinions, creating a space to listen to these all these voices is critical for creating sustainable, change on the local and national level.
By the end of the meeting, the lively discussion evolved into a framework of what the partners could accomplish together and tough logistical decisions still to be made. Members of the platform highlighted the importance of adequate agricultural education and utilizing the farmer-to-farmer practice of sharing information and seeds to extend the reach of the work of the Plataforma beyond its members to farmers across Guatemala. They collectively decided to map out the communities that each organization serves, ensuring all those in need are covered and no one community is oversaturated with support while others are left behind. However, before the plan could be implemented, there were some big decisions still to be made about how exactly to ensure that adequate follow up was given to farmers receiving the new seed, and how to ensure that the variety of organizations participating could provide the same level of accuracy in data.
Ultimately, the group decided to host two more technical meetings as well as agreed to connect agricultural field technicians from each organization with the parcels of the new crops currently being grown by Semilla Nueva and ANAGRAB (The National Association for Basic Grains).
We are thrilled to have achieved this rare unity, as this is the first time this kind of collaboration has happened in the agricultural community in Guatemala. Semilla Nueva is excited to play a major role as such collaborative activities come to life with the Plataforma. We have great expectations in what we can accomplish to combat malnutrition by encouraging communities to adopt resilient, nutrient-rich seeds via a strong network of partners fighting together.