Long-ended Rodale Institute amaranth trials still offering hope to Mexican farmers
Tiny seeds, big hopes for this nutritious indigenous seed
where corn is the unprofitable king.

By Greg Bowman


photos courtesy of Mission Mazahua

Posted November 10, 2006: In 1986, someone in Missouri gave Norberto and Lisa Cortes a stack of old Organic Gardening magazines. It’s just the kind of thing you do for missionaries who are giving themselves to a community.

Norberto saw to his astonishment that The Rodale Institute was doing variety trials and seed improvement on amaranth, an ancient Meso-American seed crop that European religious zeal had virtually succeeded in wiping out.

He went back to Toluca, a community of the Mazahua indigenous group where the couple now has a mission based in the ex-hacienda of Tepetitlan, a former agrarian estate. The dry, central highlands area is about 65 miles (about 2.5 hours) west of Mexico City in the state of Mexico.

The Mazahua people have been socially and economically marginalized for centuries, and many people from the villages near Mission Mazahua (http://home.woh.rr.com/mazahua/mazahua.html) leave for Mexico City or attempt to immigrate to the US to find jobs that will allow them to support their families.

Lisa Cortes said she believes some 1,700 people have immigrated to the US from the region in recent years, including 800 from a single town who now live in Yonkers, New York.

Corn losing viability

Corn farming is still subsidized by state governments, Norberto said, because governors vie to keep their states as the “top producers” by supporting chemical and fertilizer inputs. Soil is degrading, yields are declining and prices continue to fall as the NAFTA trade agreement lets subsidized US corn pour onto the Mexican market. Local farmers are intensely loyal to raising corn as a defining part of their lives, despite the lack of profitability.

To encourage younger farmers to diversify into new crops with more economic promise, the mission program models an organic farming system of crop rotation using compost and cover crops, including fava (faba) beans. Norberto obtained amaranth seed in the Mexican state of Chiapas some years back, and continues to seek ways of making it an attractive crop to local farmer entrepreneurs.

A current value-added product is popped amaranth made into snack cakes that look a lot like rice cakes. They include local honey and sunflower seeds to make a highly nutritious food, as amaranth is a high-protein, gluten-free pseudo-grain, in a technical sense. There are some 60 species of amaranth—a relative of common pigweed, so well known to US farmers—with some grown for their highly nutritious leaves in tropical areas. Click here for nutritional details.

Amaranth was all but wiped out by violent efforts to prevent its growth, due to its ritual religious use. It was mixed with the blood of human sacrifices by the Aztec people when Spaniards first discovered their rituals. The crop survived only in remote villages until modern efforts to commercialize it as an alternate crop that can be easily naturalized back into its genetic zone of origin.

Norberto continues to believe that amaranth, grown in a proper crop rotation, will be a key to the agricultural regeneration of the local countryside. He works as he can on marketing amaranth products to build economic options for his neighbors.

In addition to human-scale organic agriculture, Mission Mazahua works toward “wholistic transformation” through micro-enterprise, basic education, language development, social and spiritual instruction. The mission seeks to create ways for students to build livelihoods in their communities through vocational training in an array of crafts including sculpture, ceramics and technically appropriate systems for sustainable production of rabbits and mushrooms.

“The whole creation is waiting to be redeemed,” he quotes from the book of Romans when he gives his biblical reason for a commitment to organic agriculture. “I take those words seriously,” he said, in seeking transformation of Creation and people where he is.