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ARGENTINA
The rescue of corn
Andrés Gaudin
5/27/2004
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Producers join to protect native corn.

At a time when genetic engineering dominates Argentine agriculture, a group of families in the northwestern province of Catamarca have successfully rescued distinct varieties of Andean corn that were condemned to extinction. With this activity, they have secured food for themselves while obtaining a return that allows them to expand the crop.

The idea of commercializing the production of Andean corn arose among a group of 15 families of small farmers who own between 1 and 5 hectares (2.47 acres and 12 acres) of land. They are residents of the district of San Jose, Santa Maria department, located 400 kms (248 miles) north of the provincial capital and 1,589 kilometers (985 miles) north of Buenos Aires. In May 2002, they created the Producers Association of Andean Corn.

In Santa Maria, 70 percent of the families survive on a tiny income from agriculture, an activity which has been deteriorating over the last several years. It is an area with a warm climate, 1,998 meters (6,555 feet) above sea level and extremely dry. Santa Maria has a population of nearly 6,000 people.

To prepare the land for planting, ancestral farming technique are used — opening the ground with a plough handle, driven by horses or mules — and for grinding the corn hollowed out trunks of trees native to the area are employed.

Agrochemicals are only used in extreme cases. The idea shared by technicians and the farmers is to apply integrated disease management using exclusively bio-degradable products or traps for birds and beasts of prey. The land, meanwhile, is enriched with organic materials while the tasks of preparing the land is carried out.

The experience was able to bear fruit thanks to the interest shown by the National Institute of Agriculture and Livestock Technology (INTA) and the state-run University of Buenos Aires (UBA).

"The project could become viable because a combination of interests came together, but above all due to the will of the producers who had to look for an alternative to obtain better prices in light of the unfair competition from genetically-modified crops," said Juan Antonio Caseres, an expert of INTA who works with the campesinos of San Jose.

Caseres recalled that INTA as well as the Agronomy Faculty at UBA had proposed the goal of mapping to rescue and conserve genetic material of the species of native corn that have been cultivated by the peoples of the Calchaquies Valleys since pre-Colombian times.

In October 2002, with the first samples obtained, the producers made their appearance in the European market and in association with the Food Agriculture Program of UBA participated in the Turin Tasting Salon of the Italian non-governmental organization Slow Food. Four products selected for the occasion were sent: husked stalks of capia, yellow and white corn and yellow corn flour in hand-crafted containers of 0.5 kg.

Visitors could try different typical foods prepared with these four products: soups, tortillas, bread, stews, tamales and desserts. "The indigenous corns of the Argentine Calchaquies Valleys," as they were presented, gained wide acceptance and from there the first commitments for export arose.

"Our goals," said Caseres, "were in line with the idea of Slow Food, which promotes and economically supports small producers related to rescuing gastronomic culture associated with pleasure, sustained in organically produced foods and is a response to the degrading effects of the ‘fast food’ culture."

The association, encouraged by the acceptance and demand in the European market, is avidly seeking organically-produced foods and where the merchandise was placed at good price — around US$150 per tonne compared with $80 per tones locally. It plans to incorporate a small xxx with the corn produced in the next harvest.

In the harvest that begins this May, Caseres hopes to reach a yield of close to 2 tonnes per hectare planted. "Last year, in the first harvest, we had a setback because we had to support a prolonged drought and we only harvested 1,200 kg per hectare. This year the climate helped us," he said.

In light of the results of this experience, technicians of INTA and UBA and the producers of Catamarca agreed that production will be based on no more than five of the almost 50 varieties of native corn, all of excellent quality and those that present the best commercial uses.

The producers will offer the European market a food differentiated from the common commercial varieties on offer and with a high added-value. It will include an explanation on how to prepare traditional meals and different recipes will be printed on the containers.

The project is seen as meeting two essential objectives. On the one hand, it assures the small producer an important profit margin since the cultivation does not require large investment and promises good price. On the other, the farmers are succeeding in reproducing and conserving genetic material in situ, thus avoiding other more costly forms of conservation.


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