Heirloom Non-GMO Corn Is Helping Sustain Mexico’s Heritage and Farmers
It's not often that a conversation inspires an idea leading to a project that improves people's lives and potentially transforms an industry. But that's what happened to Jorge Gaviria, founder of Masienda.
While serving as a host and translator at the G9 Chefs Summit at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York in 2013, Gaviria heard chefs discuss responsibly sourced ingredients.
Masienda / Facebook
This inspired him to travel to Mexico and learn about the country's rare heirloom corn varieties. He got the idea to work with smallholder farmers there to buy their corn, import it to the U.S. and supply restaurants, which would make delicious tortillas using the corn.
In 2014, Gaviria founded Masienda, which is a combination of the words "masa" or corn flour and "tienda" or store, to accomplish his goal.
Jorge Gaviria, founder and CEO of MasiendaMasienda
Sourced Landrace Non-GMO Corn Varieties
"I gained an appreciation for the storied history of corn," Gaviria said. "The more I learned the more I wanted to create opportunities for farmers and to connect chefs to them."
Mexico, particularly the southern state of Oaxaca, is known as the birthplace of corn.
"Mexico has been producing corn for 12,000 years," Gaviria explained.
The country has as many as 59 landraces or locally adapted, traditional varieties of corn, according to Martha Willcox, Maize Landrace Improvement Coordinator at CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center), who has helped Gaviria with his project.
Masienda partner grower, Catarino and his family in Oaxaca.Masienda
"Maize is the culture in Mexico," she said. "Everyone eats maize every day and there are 2,000 culinary applications."
Within those 59 landraces, Gaviria says there are "tons of varieties" of corn, including many colors such as white, blue, red and yellow.
"There is a huge amount of diversity in the landraces," Willcox said.
Masienda sources its corn from Oaxaca, whose corn varieties are among the most rare and diverse in Mexico. Gaviria buys the corn from the region's smallholder farmers who have been growing these corn varieties for generations.
"These farmers are custodians of a very precious commodity," said Alan Tank, former assistant vice president of the National Corn Growers Association and an adviser to Masienda. "The value it represents to them and to the world is nothing short of phenomenal."
As an Iowa farmer, Tank appreciates the value of Mexico's corn heritage. "Being part of family farm, I understand the need for biodiversity and preserving it," he said.
Provides Needed Income to Farmers
The average size of the smallholder farms range from about 2 to 12 acres. Oaxaca's farmers are poor with 62 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
Masienda's purchase of the farmers' excess corn—most of the corn they need for food—provides the farmers with income they would not otherwise receive.
"We are providing a fair price to the farmers for growing the corn and having a big impact on rural communities there," Gaviria said.
"It's a way to provide markets with good prices for farmers who have continued to grow these landraces," Willcox said.
This year Masienda is working with 1,200 farmers after starting with 100 in 2014. Willcox and CIMMYT helped Gaviria identify the best corn varieties, connect with the farmers, source the corn and pay the farmers.
Masienda imports 10 to 15 different landraces. According to the company's website, this is the first time in history these corn varieties have been available outside of the remote, indigenous communities of Oaxaca.
Masienda supplies corn to about 100 restaurants, mostly in the U.S. with a few in Canada.
One of those restaurants is Taquiza in Miami, Florida. Owner and chef Steve Santana uses blue and white bolita corn varieties to make masa flour, which is then made into tortillas and chips.
Santana is enthusiastic about Masienda's corn. "Visually it's really cool looking and the flavor is unmatched," he said.
Santana could buy much cheaper U.S. domestic corn but he prefers the heirloom varieties.
"I like knowing that farmers are getting treated well throughout the supply chain," he said. "We are preserving a little history; this is pure food in its natural state."
Non-GMO Market Opportunity
Masienda is growing exponentially. In just two years, the company's corn imports grew from 40 tons in 2014 to 80 tons last year and 400 this year.
The company is also co-branding tortilla products with Chicago-based restaurant Frontera Grill and plans to sell its own branded products.
Gaviria says the market potential for the landrace corn is huge. According to the Tortilla Industry Association, the U.S. tortilla market is worth $12.5 billion.
Most tortillas in the U.S. are likely made from genetically modified corn since more than 90 percent of the corn grown here is GMO. But with the soaring demand for non-GMO foods, there is great market potential for Mexico's heirloom non-GMO corn.
Mexico has not approved production of GMO corn, but last August a Mexican judge overturned a September 2013 ban on plantings of GMO corn, paving the way for field trials of the controversial crop.
The concern is that GMO corn production could cross pollinate and contaminate Mexico's landrace corn varieties. In 2001, University of California scientist Ignacio Chapela published a paper documenting GMO contamination of some of Oaxaca's landrace varieties. Willcox thinks this may have occurred when Mexican migrant workers brought back GMO seed from the U.S. and planted it.
However, she said: "I haven't seen evidence (of GMO contamination). I don't worry about it. It's still not legal in Mexico."
Gaviria sees GMOs as a threat to Mexico's corn biodiversity. "GMOs could have a fundamental impact on the tradition and scope of preservation," he said.
Provides Vehicle to Preserve Landrace Corn
Gaviria has ambitious plans for Masienda. "We want to educate consumers on what corn can and should taste like and provide an alternative supply chain to what we've conventionally known in the U.S. for the last 50 plus years," he said.
In the process Masienda aims to support smallholder farmers, sustainability and biodiversity.
"What Masienda does and represents is nothing short of essential," Tank said. "It provides a vehicle to ensure landrace genetics can be preserved and protected. It allows farmers to capture value. What better way to preserve the landraces than to create a market for them so they are preserved for history."
Willcox says Masienda is an exciting project with a lot of potential: "It's a conservation effort, a development effort and a research effort."
Eleven peaceful activists from the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise have taken to the water in inflatable boats with handheld banners to oppose the Statoil Songa Enabler oil rig, 275 km North off the Norwegian coast, in the Arctic Barents sea.
The banners say: "People Vs. Arctic Oil" and are directed at Statoil and the Norwegian government, which has opened a new, aggressive search for oil in the waters of the Barents Sea.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) paved the way Friday for the 600-mile, 42-inch fracked gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline to proceed when it issued the final environmental impact statement (FEIS). A joint project of utility giants Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would move fracked gas from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina.
In April, the Sierra Club submitted more than 500 pages of legal and technical comments on FERC's draft EIS, which were joined by more than 18,000 individual comments detailing opposition to the project. The pipeline has been met with widespread opposition, with more than 1,000 people participating in public hearings across the three affected states. The Sierra Club recently requested that FERC issue a new environmental review document analyzing information that came in after or late in, the public comment process.
By Jessica Corbett
"It's time Rex Tillerson step down or be removed," said Gigi Kellett of Corporate Accountability International, following an announcement on Thursday that ExxonMobil will pay $2 million for violating U.S. sanctions against Russian officials while the now-secretary of state was the company's CEO.
"ExxonMobil demonstrated reckless disregard for U.S. sanction requirements," according to enforcement filing released by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which issued the penalty. Though the fine is reportedly the maximum penalty allowed, it's pittance to one of the world's most profitable and powerful corporations, which last year reported a profit of $7.8 billion.
New analysis from Amory B. Lovins debunks the notion that highly unprofitable, economically distressed nuclear plants should be further subsidized to meet financial, security, reliability and climate goals. The analysis, which will appear shortly in The Electricity Journal, shows that closing costly-to-run nuclear plants and reinvesting their saved operating costs in energy efficiency provides cheaper electricity, increases grid reliability and security, reduces more carbon, and preserves (not distorts) market integrity—all without subsidies.
By Christian Detisch and Seth Gladstone
In the wake of Senate Republicans' ever-deepening debacle over their flailing attempts to strip health insurance from 22 million people, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is desperate to do something—anything—to show that he can get legislation passed. To this end, he's bypassing the standard committee review process to push a complex 850+ page energy bill straight to the full Senate floor. Perhaps not surprisingly, this legislation, the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017, would be a disaster for public health and our climate.
A new law passed this week in South Miami will require all new homes built in the city to install solar panels. The measure, which was inspired by a proposal from a teenage climate activist, will go into effect in September.
The text of the ordinance details the climate impacts facing South Miami.
By Ben Jervey
Just last week, we fact-checked and debunked every line of The Dirty Secrets of Electric Cars, a video produced by Fueling U.S. Forward, a Koch-funded campaign to push fossil fuels. That video represents the group's first public pivot from fossil fuel boosterism to electric vehicle (EV) attacks. More electric vehicle experts are also picking the video apart.
One effort is this video highlighting many of the same falsehoods we wrote about, and which adds key context about some of the video footage. Like, for instance, the fact that the photo that Fueling U.S. Forward claims is a lithium, cobalt or cerium mining operation is actually a copper mine.
By Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins
A recent series of articles by a Washington Post reporter could have some consumers questioning the value of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic seal. But are a few bad eggs representative of an entire industry?
Consumers are all for cracking down on the fraudulent few who, with the help of Big Food, big retail chains and questionable certifiers give organics a bad name. But they also want stronger standards, and better enforcement—not a plan to weaken standards to accommodate "Factory Farm Organic."