Guadalupe Ortiz’s Canasta de Semillas (Basket of Seeds) model combines the preservation and organic production of native Mexican seeds with a hub-and-spoke distribution network that ensures that rural families can access those seeds for subsistence farming. By linking the food security of rural Mexicans to the preservation of native seeds, Canasta de Semillas simultaneously tackles both the social consequences of subsistence farmer’s nutritional and economic vulnerability and the environmental consequences of declining biodiversity.
La nuova idea
When an organic farming project that Guadalupe was leading with a group of indigenous women in 2003 stalled because no native organic seeds were readily available, Guadalupe was spurred into researching the native seed market in Mexico. To her dismay, she learned that for years native varieties of many fruit and vegetable seeds—such as tomato, eggplant, squash, and lettuce—had begun to fade into extinction as rural families abandoned subsistence agriculture and as Mexico’s industrial farming sector imported ever larger amounts of seeds from abroad. Seeing an opportunity to link the recovery of native seed varieties to the improvement of rural families’ food security, Guadalupe founded Canasta de Semillas in 2004 with the goal of tackling both problems at once. Her strategy is to revive subsistence farming as a food “safety net” for millions of rural Mexicans by involving the families in the production and distribution of organic native seed varieties that are best suited to the diverse climatic and soil conditions throughout Mexico.
While many other citizen organizations (COs) already promote backyard gardens as a small-scale solution to the problem of food security, Guadalupe’s innovative idea is to link those backyard gardens to a new network of community seed banks and regional seed reserves that collect seed samples from individual gardens, reproduce and preserve them, and make them available to even more rural families for use in subsistence farming. The result is a growing domestic supply of organic native seeds that, while ill-suited to large-scale industrial agriculture, perform better under local growing conditions without the use of irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers. Not only does Guadalupe’s network strategy improve food security for a greater number of families, but it also begins to restore Mexico’s endangered plant biodiversity.
Guadalupe is currently completing three demonstration “nodes”—each of which consists of a regional seed reserve linked to a set of community seed banks and individual backyard gardens—in different parts of Mexico that will serve as models for replication by potential allies like rural development COs or government agencies. Canasta de Semillas has received government financing to have four fully operational nodes by the end of 2010, and within the next five years Guadalupe’s goal is to have one complete node up and running in each of the 31 Mexican states by partnering with local organizations and government entities. Once Canasta de Semillas has accumulated a critical mass of organic seeds from its network of backyard gardens, Guadalupe plans to commercialize the seeds to provide a new revenue stream for rural families. Her ultimate goal is to help establish similar hub-and-spoke networks in other countries, thus creating a Seeds Without Borders that can help bolster rural food security through the international exchange of seeds that have adapted to different regions and climates.
Many of the 25 million rural Mexicans who have traditionally relied on subsistence farming have increasingly abandoned the cultivation of their land, thereby putting their families’ and their communities’ food security at greater risk. In the wake of Mexico’s debt crisis in 1982, the government began a series of attempts to liberalize various sectors of the Mexican economy, including the agricultural sector. The gradual removal of subsidies and the push toward more open markets signaled the beginning of a structural shift in Mexican agriculture, fueling the growth of large industrial farms while smaller farmers lost the income they once earned from selling excess crops at government-supported prices. The advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, with its incentives to export Mexican agricultural output to the U.S., further favored the large-scale agricultural sector, which in turn began importing genetically modified seeds and chemical inputs to dramatically increase crop yields. Today more than 90 percent of the seeds that are used in Mexico are imported, with the vast majority being varieties that do not reproduce and that require chemical pesticides and fertilizers to thrive.
These developments in the last 30 years have had profound consequences for subsistence farmers in rural Mexico, many of whom were already dealing with low productivity in communal farming arrangements known as ejidos, a holdover from populist land reforms of the 1930s. With shrinking land plots and few incentives for capital investment, subsistence farmers began losing the tradition of producing and exchanging regionally adapted native seeds, which became increasingly replaced by imported seeds. More and more rural families began abandoning their land altogether, creating a large population of Mexican women, children, and elderly adults who have become dependent upon remittances sent from migrants to feed their families. Not only is this reliance on remittances precarious, but it also furthers the vicious cycle of seed loss and deterioration of rural communities.
A critical factor that has contributed to the decline of subsistence farming in Mexico is the absence of seed producers focused on supplying this market segment. Private companies are uninterested in the lack of profitability in the subsistence farming sector and therefore focus instead on importing highly productive hybrid seeds designed for industrial farms. Despite public concerns about adverse consequences for Mexican food security, the one government entity that did play an important social role in supplying seeds to small farmers—the Productora Nacional de Semillas (PRONASE)—was dismantled in 2007, largely because of doubts as to whether the government should be involved in mass seed production. Since PRONASE was shut down, no other supplier has stepped in to fill this gap. The few academic seed banks in Mexico are run primarily for research purposes and are disconnected from rural families who do not have access to seeds, and even COs that promote rural development through backyard garden projects must buy their seeds year after year, usually from foreign suppliers. Most of these seeds are not well suited to the challenging and highly diverse growing conditions that subsistence farmers face in different areas of Mexico, including varied climates, soil types, terrain, and precipitation levels.
On a national level, the decline of subsistence farming—particularly in the farther-flung southern regions of Mexico—increases the country’s vulnerability in terms of food security. Not only does Mexico’s overwhelming reliance on seed imports represent a tenuous position, but the deluge of foreign seeds is also threatening the country’s plant biodiversity. Along with Central America, southern Mexico is considered one of eight regions of the world where plant domestication originated, specifically for species such as maize, beans, sweet potato, pepper, papaya, guava, cherry tomatoes, and cacao. Native varieties of these species are increasingly at risk of extinction as imported seeds spread throughout Mexico. As Mexico’s plant biodiversity shrinks, so do the chances that varieties that are particularly well suited to different regions and conditions survive and remain available to farmers.
Canasta de Semillas is a network solution that both produces native organic seeds and distributes them to rural families through a loan-and-deposit seed bank system. The basic unit of the network is what Guadalupe calls a regional node, which consists of a set of individual family backyard gardens linked to local seed banks, which are in turn linked to a single seed reserve for that region. To launch a node, Canasta de Semillas procures native organic seeds from a variety of sources within a given region, including academic seed banks and individual families who have managed to preserve some seeds themselves. These become the starter seeds for each community seed bank, which is simply a collection of seed varieties managed by a “seed guardian” in that town or village, usually a local family or indigenous elder with longstanding experience with seeds.
The community seed bank can then loan seed samples to ordinary local families with at least a small plot of land. With the assistance either of Canasta de Semillas itself or rural development CO partners, these families learn organic techniques for growing an entire range of native fruits and vegetables—from spinach and celery to carrots and tomatoes—in their backyards. Two or three harvest cycles may be required before the families become adept at backyard cultivation, but as early as the first year the small plots of land—which are often located in semi-urban as well as rural areas—begin producing a supply not only of nutritious food for household consumption but also of seeds for future rounds of planting, thus ensuring the families self-reliance in food security. Once the families have returned the original seed “loan” that was made to them by their community seed bank after a couple of harvest cycles, they also have the opportunity to sell excess seeds produced in their gardens to the seed bank for additional income. The seeds that are reproduced in the backyard gardens vary from region to region according to local growing conditions, thus capturing the rich diversity of Mexico’s native fruit and vegetable varieties.
In turn, the community seed banks within a given region send seed samples to the regional seed reserve, a facility that is run by a technician and includes a greenhouse, a solar-powered freezer for seed storage, and terraced gardens for experiments and research. Each reserve is responsible for cataloguing and preserving native seeds from its region; reproducing those seeds to achieve sufficient volume to be distributed throughout the Canasta de Semillas network, including back to community seed banks for further loans to rural families; and serving as a resource center for rural families in the area who can come to the reserve for guidance and technical advice. Guadalupe also wants to equip each reserve to be an educational center for local schoolchildren, college students and academic researchers, and scout troops who can come to learn about the importance of seed preservation and small-scale organic agriculture.
Each of these nodes is connected to other regional nodes through the Red de Semillas (Seed Network), thus enabling the exchange of seeds between different regions and the sharing of best practices. Even though Canasta de Semillas is in the early stages of growth, Guadalupe has specifically designed the node model to facilitate replication by third parties—most likely rural development COs and government agencies—following protocol and standards set by Canasta de Semillas. With financing and institutional support from two key government entities, the National Institute for Social Development (INDESOL) and (the Secretary of Agriculture (SAGARPA), Canasta de Semillas completed four demonstration nodes in 2010 which served as models for interested third parties who want to join the Red de Semillas. SAGARPA in particular, will be a critical ally in helping Guadalupe to convince local and state politicians to adopt her model. Within five years, her goal is to have a fully operational node in all 31 Mexican states, largely through collaboration with locally-based COs and government agencies.
Once Canasta de Semillas has accumulated a critical mass of seeds from its network, Guadalupe plans to commercialize the organic seeds under a single registered Canasta de Semillas brand. She has already shared her plans with organic certification agencies who have verified that her entire network can be certified, allowing profits from seed sales to be shared among all members of the Red de Semillas. The opportunity to participate in this collaborative business venture will give rural families added incentive to continue cultivating their backyard gardens year after year. Guadalupe’s other medium- to long-term goal is to export the Canasta de Semillas model to other countries with large rural populations; with the ultimate intention of linking seed networks in different countries to each other in a Seeds Without Borders that promotes the exchange of seeds and best practices on an international scale.
Despite growing up far away from Mexico’s rural communities in Mexico City, Guadalupe has been fascinated by indigenous cultures ever since she was a girl and has dedicated much of her work to preserving their traditions and values. In one of her earliest jobs working in the public relations office of the president of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, a major Mexican political party, Guadalupe had the opportunity to interact frequently with the leaders of rural communities. Even though she has long since distanced herself from politics, the experience gave her a window not only into how the Mexican government works but also into the particular challenges facing the Mexican countryside, particularly indigenous groups.
In 1993 Guadalupe combined her entrepreneurial abilities and her knowledge of indigenous cultures by launching a business that helped indigenous communities commercialize artisanal products for export to New Zealand, Argentina, and Spain. When declining market demand forced her to close the business after four years of operations, Guadalupe realized that in order to have a greater impact on these communities and their needs, she would have to work much more directly with them. In 1997 she founded México Tierra Mágica, a CO dedicated to the sustainable economic development of indigenous communities. She traveled to the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca to work with the Triqui people—notorious for being a closed society that is hostile toward outsiders. For years Guadalupe patiently but persistently dialogued with local leaders—all men in the beginning—to jointly identify the most pressing needs and implement effective solutions by leveraging funds that Guadalupe raised elsewhere in Mexico. She gradually won the communities’ trust as she demonstrated her collegiality and her ability to deliver on her agreements with the communities, such as an ambulance to be shared between various Triqui villages and a long-range radio communication system.
By 2003, local male Triqui leaders trusted Guadalupe enough to allow her to begin working with Triqui women, something that was virtually unheard of for an outsider. Concerned about the unbalanced gender roles that she had observed in these communities over the years, Guadalupe formed the Red de Mujeres Indígenas Triqui (Network of Indigenous Triqui Women), comprised of two female representatives from each community, and organized a workshop on small-scale organic agriculture for the women using greenhouse and drip irrigation techniques. It was during this workshop that Guadalupe realized to her great surprise that despite the availability of land and basic agricultural technology, the most basic component of organic agriculture—the seeds—was missing. When her independent research into the matter revealed that rural communities were losing their tradition of preserving seeds and that no one was any longer producing native seeds on a commercial scale, Guadalupe was convinced that immediate action had to be taken to address Mexico’s vulnerable food security situation. Her work through Canasta de Semillas from 2004 to the present is coupling the preservation of native seeds with sustainable, small-scale rural development to achieve not only social but also economic and environmental impact that can be rapidly scaled through strategic partnerships.