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A service for agriculture industry professionals · Friday, June 21, 2024 · 721,712,832 Articles · 3+ Million Readers

Traditional agrifood systems conserve biodiversity and support nutrition in Mexico

Mexico has had a long history of resilient agricultural systems and food cultures that reflect the country’s agrobiodiversity. With GEF funding, FAO and CONABIO are reviving traditional practices to support the resilience of farmers’ livelihoods and meet the population’s nutritional needs. © Secretaría de Desarrollo Sustentable, Gobierno del Estado de Yucatán


Walk through farmlands in the rugged, hilly terrain of parts of Mexico and you’ll see maize plants grown widely spaced apart with pole beans climbing up them and the large leaves of squash covering the soil alongside edible herbs. These are all part of a farming system known as a milpa. It is quite the opposite of monoculture here, with each family growing a variety of nutritious crops.

The milpas are home to the taste of tortillas, or cornmeal pancakes, cooked on a wood fire and served with beans, as Mexican grandparents used to make them decades ago. Milpas are a world away from ultra-processed, packaged foods that are increasingly taking over in so many places.

These resilient ancient agrifood systems of pre-Hispanic origin and the food cultures linked to them are crucial to the agrobiodiversity of Mexico. Indeed, the term biodiversity itself could have been coined with the country in mind when you consider the purple, orange or bright yellow colours of the dozens of varieties of maize found in the country. The same is true of many other crops.

It’s to help revive traditional farming practices and put more of these and other native biodiverse foods into farmers’ fields and onto consumers’ plates that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has been working with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and local research institute, the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO).

When it comes to people’s nutrition, the aim is to help address some of the issues of overweight, obesity and Non-Communicable Diseases, which in Mexico, as in many other countries, have been spiralling due to increasing consumption of highly processed foods and a lack of variety in people’s diets.

Mexico’s agricultural biodiversity is a rich storehouse of traits that help with adaptation to specific agro-ecological conditions, resistance to pests and diseases and climate change. Yet the continuous expansion of large-scale, intensive agricultural production, monoculture practices and the abandonment of traditional agricultural production, makes households and communities more vulnerable to natural and economic shocks, not to mention the stark implications on food security and nutrition.

Through an innovative project on conserving genetic diversity and traditional agro-ecosystems in Mexico, FAO, GEF and CONABIO have been able to reverse the trend in selected regions.

Traditional knowledge preserves agrobiodiversity

A key aim of the project was revitalising and increasing the visibility of the milpa, giving farmers a sense of recognition for their production while helping the country’s urban population to value their work. Milpa systems help farmers diversify their crops and increase productivity, while becoming more resilient to climate change.

Also important was the creation of 77 community and family seed banks projects to improve the management of local and regional agrobiodiversity with over 1 444 farmers participating, creating networks of seed custodians and implementing seed exchanges between communities. All this has helped to maintain 155 globally significant species within the agroecosystems. The role of wild relatives of various crop varieties has been particularly important in enhancing resilience.

Over a five-year period, nearly 10 000 Mexican producers have strengthened their capacities to conserve and manage their agrobiodiversity with the practices and knowledge acquired. These sustainable agricultural practices have also directly impacted around 5 200 hectares and more than one million hectares indirectly.

The project was also aimed at consumers, tapping into a nostalgia for the flavours of milpa cuisine and keeping prices down with direct trading practices and short supply chains. ©Ivan Lowenberg

Driving demand for agrobiodiverse products

Like much of FAO’s work, the initiative focused on farmers, who are always willing to experiment and try out new varieties and approaches with a new dimension. However, the project was additionally aimed at consumers who feel a nostalgia for the flavours of milpa cuisine when they encounter the producers selling their foods in local markets.

To help understand more about the consumer preferences, FAO conducted market studies in six Mexican states. This was paired with marketing campaigns showcasing the origin, as well as the nutritional, health and environmental benefits of the agrobiodiverse products. According to market surveys, the campaigns had an impact on the volume and sales revenue of the marketed products. By linking consumers and producers, they create a virtuous cycle of farmers diversifying production practices to supply consumers and consumers demanding more diverse products to generate a market for farmers. This can transform agrifood systems and help improve both the environment and people’s nutrition.

In addition, by collecting high quality data on food intake and food consumption, the project can also measure the environmental and nutritional impacts of this holistic approach to promoting traditional agrifood system strengthening.

Building on the success of this initiative in Mexico, the momentum and interest in promoting agrobiodiversity continues at local level in many areas of the country. Meanwhile FAO’s ongoing work in partnership with GEF and CONABIO focuses on food systems within the country’s varied cultural landscape, with the completed project providing a baseline on which to build future work.

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