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?”
Five years ago, Semilla Nueva’s founders were armed with ideas, determination, and a fresh set of eyes to look at old problems. However, we also lacked knowledge in a number of areas important for operating an agricultural nonprofit in Guatemala – how to speak Spanish, management skills, agricultural knowledge… (Wait, how did this work, anyway?) Yet we had one other huge advantage: our willingness to learn from the partners who had the patience to teach and guide us. Over the past few years we’ve learned a lot about Guatemalan culture, economics, and development; we’ve learned scientific study design, account management, farmer to farmer development, and so much more!
Now, we find ourselves at the exciting moment where we are no longer only eager students and listeners – we are valuable contributors to the global conversation on agricultural development. A prime example of how far we have come was demonstrated by our participation in the Central American Cooperative Program for the Improvement of Crops and Animals (PCCMCA) this year. The PCCMCA is an annual conference where top scientists, researchers, development experts, and policy makers in the region come together to share new findings and best practices for sustainable agriculture and set the agenda for agricultural research for the upcoming years.
The conference rotates throughout Central America and is organized by the host country’s public agricultural research institution. Guatemala was selected to host the annual event this year, presenting a fantastic opportunity not just for Semilla Nueva, but for the country of Guatemala as a whole. The goal of the PCCMCA is to create innovative technology for intensive sustainable agriculture. This kind of research is especially important for Guatemala, as it counts with the largest population in Central America and 30% of its labor force works in the agricultural sector.
In addition to the general importance of agriculture in Guatemala, the country faces a distinct set of problems that make innovation in agriculture highly important. Despite producing a wide variety of food products, Guatemala faces the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. This problem is further exacerbated by the increasingly frequent occurrence of droughts and unpredictable rains. Farmers with little land, resources, and depleted soils are in dire need of the research, technical assistance, and institutional support that comes from the collaborations made possible by programs like the PCCMCA.
Dr. Elias Raymundo Raymundo, the director of the ICTA and the organizer of the event, described the PCCMCA as “a photograph of the most up to date research and information in the region.” He further emphasized that the conference is an extremely important opportunity for the region’s agricultural and nutrition researchers and technical experts to influence public policy and their country’s development.
Each day of the event was opened by presentations reviewing some of the most pressing challenges currently facing agricultural research and development including climate change, population growth, and resource scarcity. Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, winner of the 2014 World Food Prize – a prize recognizing “the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world” – kicked off the series of conferences with a global overview in his talk, “The State of Nutrition and Agriculture in the World.” The afternoons were filled with mini lectures grouped by areas of interest. 53 poster presentations and various oral presentations allowed students and scientists to disseminate their research. Throughout the week Semilla Nueva hosted a stand alongside other NGOs, businesses, and research institutions, which gave participants from other sectors and countries the chance to talk to our team and learn about Semilla Nueva’s programs in the Pacific Coast.
As part of the conference, HarvestPlus also organized its annual meeting for Latin America. HarvestPlus, part of a consortium of organizations that undertake work to identify solutions to fight malnutrition, is the leading program promoting biofortified crops. Biofortified crops are naturally improved crops that are selected for their high quantities of essential vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc, and Vitamin A. Biofortification is seen as one of the most promising solutions for micronutrient deficiencies and hidden hunger in the developing world. HarvestPlus, through a generous grant and ongoing in-kind support, is an important partner in Semilla Nueva’s efforts to develop and promote biofortified crops and educate consumers, producers, and policy makers in Guatemala. Attending the PCCMCA together afforded organizations working with HarvestPlus the chance to review progress during 2014 and 2015 and establish goals for the remainder of 2015 and 2016. Each day, after 10 hours of nonstop presentations, networking, and discussions on agricultural studies and policy work, the organizations working with HarvestPlus broke into work groups based on the biofortified crops being researched throughout the region: maize, beans, rice, and root vegetables. Within each team, plans were set for the next year in the areas of seed development research, nutrition and post harvest research, impact and dissemination, and communications.
Semilla Nueva is a relatively new addition to the group of HarvestPlus partners, but we were excited to see our work used as an exemplary model for how other organizations can successfully promote biofortified crops with farmers. Our work on high protein corn (QPM) was presented to the fellow organizations working in biofortification and will be used to help guide future programs. In the area of communications, Semilla Nueva presented the outline of a funny and animated educational video aimed at rural farmers and their families. The video uses “Simpsons-like” humor in a local context in order to introduce the idea of biofortification to farmers. The idea was novel and plans are now in place to replicate the video in other countries. Executive Director Curt Bowen led the HarvestPlus work group for maize biofortification throughout the week and on the final day of the conference gave a presentation for the plan for research and activities involving biofortified corn in Latin America for 2015 and 2016.
Our collaborations with large, international institutions are a testament of our team’s hard work and we are excited to be taking on more leadership within those collaborations. We may be small but we’re aiming for a large impact! We are not only looking to change the lives of the farmers and families we work with, but also the direction of national policy. As we continue to produce more research we look forward to sharing our results with our networks so that we can see our sustainable solutions reach a larger scale.