QPM: Planting Protein for the Rural Poor

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Malnutrition impedes the cognitive, emotional, and physical development of half of the children in Guatemala under the age of five. Without access to essential vitamins and minerals, stunted motor and cognitive development early in life makes it close to impossible to achieve economic and social prosperity. How can we at Semilla Nueva help enhance the nutrition of these children so that they have a chance to thrive later in life?

Just a small change in nutrition can do wonders for a human being. Increases in protein, a key element for healthy growth and functioning, can make a considerable impact. According to an investigation led by the National Food Research Policy Institute, Guatemalan children aged two years and under who were given drinks fortified with protein showed improved development that lasted throughout their lives. These individuals were more likely to continue their schooling, and as adults entering the labor force had better intellectual reasoning. The study found that men who had received the intervention saw a 46% increase in wages compared to those who did not get the boost of protein, and, in a follow-up study from the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP), women were shown to have increased their years of schooling by an average of 1.2 years. Both men and women who had consumed more protein showed higher scores on reading and intelligence testing. Protein intake early in life helps to fuel children’s learning and adults’ earning capacity.

Enter Quality Protein Maize (QPM). This promising corn variety contains higher levels of amino acids tryptophan and lysine – essential building blocks for protein absorption in the body. When QPM is consumed it provides more than two and a half times the protein of regular corn. As the average Guatemalan living in a rural area consumes 28 pounds of corn each month, replacing regular corn with QPM means a drastic increase in protein intake. International studies show that children under five whose diets are based in QPM have average growth rates 27% greater than kids eating regular corn. Likewise, studies in Ghana, Ethiopia, India, and Nicaragua concluded that children under five who ate QPM grew 12% larger than their peers who ate a diet based in regular corn.

qpm pigs
Photo credit: Crops Research Institute, Kumasi, Ghana

Pigs provide a powerful visual example of the potential of QPM. After being fed QPM for 60 days, the animals were nearly 40 pounds heavier than those fed with regular corn! This photo from a study conducted in Ghana demonstrates that difference: the pig on the right was fed regular corn while the pig on the left was fed QPM.  

There are clear health benefits of QPM, but is it really accepted by the populations for which it is intended? One study looked at corn preferences in Tanzania, surveying texture, taste, and general likeability. Results there showed a high acceptance and very positive feedback as compared to normal corn. Semilla Nueva wanted to know how Guatemalans viewed the corn, so its staff surveyed 64 families who had grown and used QPM for home consumption in our 2014 annual survey. According to these families, 98% said that the taste was better or similar to normal corn, and 94% said that they would grow the corn again the next year.

However, taste, texture, or even nutritional value aren’t always top priority when farmers choose which corn to plant. A large part of developing and spreading the use of QPM is done by promoting other important attributes of the seed. An enormous success story of  QPM adoption can be found in Ghana, where nearly all corn that is planted is now Obatanpa, a specific variety of QPM. Marketing its high yield – 38% higher than commercially available corn – was crucial to such high adoption, as yield, rather than nutritional content, remains a high priority for the majority of farmers living in poor rural communities. Another major element that helped to replace regular corn with QPM was the support and promotion of the crop through partnerships with  international organizations and governments, agricultural centers, non-profits, local universities, and representatives from both the public and private sectors working together.

Semilla Nueva, members of the Plataforma BioFORT, and farmer partners across Guatemala are following the same path. Together they are finding ways to encourage rural communities to bring QPM into their fields and their daily diets. It will take these partners working closely together to bring highly nutritious crops to the hands and diets of families to grow a healthier, stronger future for the nation. Currently, Semilla Nueva – alongside partners at the ICTA and Redsegua – is working hard to produce enough ICTA-B9, a variety of QPM that can be saved and replanted year after year. Thanks to generous funding from Harvest Plus that has made this production possible, we are now preparing to spread the seed to farming families throughout southern Guatemala. Stay tuned for details and updates about this process as we continue to explore the potential and share the impact of QPM!

 

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