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Heirloom Non-GMO Corn Is Helping Sustain Mexico’s Heritage and Farmers


Food

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.

Masienda

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."

Masienda

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."

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

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"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.