Why heirloom tortillas are an endangered species

Left in the hands of Mexico’s aging campesinos, ancestral corn is at risk of becoming extinct. And that leaves not only a culinary hole, but one in the planet’s biodiversity.

Compadre Rufino Domingo Valeriano pours his guests shots of mezcal in glasses rinsed in a donkey trough. A farmer in a dirt-road village about an hour south of the colonial city of Oaxaca, our host tips a few drops of the fiery alcohol onto the ground and makes a toast. “Salud,” he says. And we sip to our health.

Although he is in his 80s, Valeriano still ploughs his field—a rain-fed plot he calls “the milpa”—just as his Zapotec ancestors did, with cattle harnessed to yoke. Known as the three sisters agriculture, the milpa is an ancient planting system that dates from 7,000 BCE. Stalks of corn, squash and beans grow side by side, unfurling from the earth next to wild edible greens. At harvest Valeriano and his compadres walk among the corn rows, slinging the sun-ripened cobs into baskets strapped to their backs.

“I’m too old to change now,” says Valeriano, stretching his legs out in the shade of a grapefruit tree. But he fears his ancestral way of life is dying, that massive migration and erratic weather are wiping out traditional corn culture in Oaxaca, the birthplace of corn and home to much of its genetic diversity. Over the past four decades, free trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico has driven corn prices down, undermining small growers’ ability to sell their crops at decent prices. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous campesinos have moved away from the land, with many ending up as dishwashers in the U.S. or seasonal workers in Canada. Meanwhile, recurring drought has made maize growing increasingly arduous for those farmers remaining. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has noted that Oaxaca’s rural farmers are among the hardest hit by the mounting impacts of climate change. Less than three acres can produce the bulk of a family’s food for an entire year. But without rain, there is no harvest, Valeriano says. “And when the rain comes too late, the milpa weeds choke the corn.” 

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Corn is one of the most widely produced crops in the world, and Mexico is home to at least 60 recorded unique landraces, the traditional, locally adapted strains. Preserving these ancient varieties is key for future sustainability, explains geneticist Martha Willcox, who works with the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to conserve the genes of dwindling crops. But left in the hands of aging campesinos, ancestral maize is at risk of becoming extinct. And the consequent loss of biodiversity, the FAO warned in its 2010 report, will have a major impact on the ability of humankind—which will number nine billion by 2050—to combat food insecurity in the face of climate change.

Ancestral maize farming is left largely in the hands of aging campesinos as younger workers put their tools down to seek work abroad to feed their families. San Sebastian Teitipac, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Jean-Claude Teyssier)

Ancestral maize farming is left largely in the hands of aging campesinos as younger workers put their tools down to seek work abroad to feed their families. San Sebastian Teitipac, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Jean-Claude Teyssier)

The Mexican government has been working against this outcome for decades, with programs to support subsistence farmers and ancestral maize, and in 1999, officially made the cultivation of genetically modified corn illegal. But the moratorium does not extend to imports, and Mexico imports tons of industrial corn annually from the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—17 million tons in 2018, and more than 18.5 million last year. 

Three years after the ban was introduced, GM corn was discovered in the Sierra Juárez mountain range of Oaxaca, where indigenous communities plant seeds passed down over thousands of years. This gave rise to a campaign, spearheaded by scientists, farmer unions, food and agricultural activists, to save heirloom varieties. Known as Sin Maize No Hay Pais (“without corn, there is no country”), the campaign’s name has become the rallying cry in the persistent struggle for self-sufficiency and food sovereignty.

Activists are also concerned that Mexico’s heirloom corn is losing ground to industrial hybrids (cross-pollinated grains) given away to farmers by international seed companies. They fear trade agreements will introduce more biotech products (seeds with built-in chemicals that need synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) into Mexico and thus undermine not only the integrity of age-old strains of native corn but also the soil’s ecosystem.

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And the Mexican government’s efforts to sustain the ancestral system are often ineffective. In 2013, under a program to help farmers, officials distributed maize for planting, but the ejidos (communal land farming villages) rejected it. In Valeriano’s village of San Sebastián Teitipac, they piled the government corn in a field, doused the lot in gasoline and set it on fire. And his village wasn’t the only one, Valeriano says. As an ancestral legacy, the milpa is sacred. Ecological planting honours a fundamental relationship to the land that Mexico’s indigenous people consider inviolate, and campesino communities refused to plant corn of unknown provenance. Willcox says the government should be giving campesinos financial subsidies or loans instead of distributing hybrid grains, chemicals and fertilizers.

Americans have excelled at convincing the world that their high-scale way of cultivating corn is best, Willcox says. “But there was (already) a culture of corn among indigenous people of all of the Americas. That population was taken out of the equation.”

Ancestral varieties of maize thrive in their native habitats because they’ve adapted to survive in harsh conditions over centuries, says Willcox. Farmers continue to select seeds from the hardiest corn that rides out extremes, and Willcox’s organization runs breeding programs in their fields, helping them to nurture ancient varieties that withstand drought, heat and pests. 

But strengthening campesino farming hasn’t stopped industrial corn from taking over the market. Studies consistently show widespread use of genetically modified corn in animal feed, processed food and tortillas made from industrial corn—a recent report found that 90 per cent of tortillas contain GM corn. (A third of processed food tested also contained traces of the herbicide glyphosate.) “The data is alarming because the tortilla is the basis of the Mexican diet,” said the joint research team from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM). Only tortillas made from traditional heirloom maize are GM-free, the report concluded.

There’s little data pre-dating this study on modified corn in Mexican products. However, imports of industrial corn from the United States more than quadrupled over 20 years—from $530 million in 1999 to $2,719 million last year.

Corn curator and agricultural engineer Amado Ramirez Leyva, checks the quality of heirloom corn intended for niche, gourmet markets. Santa Ana Zegache, Oaxaca. (Jean-Claude Teyssier)

Corn curator and agricultural engineer Amado Ramirez Leyva, checks the quality of heirloom corn intended for niche, gourmet markets. Santa Ana Zegache, Oaxaca. (Jean-Claude Teyssier)

“The real tortilla,” according to Amado Ramirez Leyva, a corn curator and agricultural engineer, begins with heirloom corn that’s been soaked in cal, or lime, a process known as nixtamalization, which, when done at the industrial level strips the corn of nutrients and flavour. It is made by hand from freshly ground corn and ideally served hot off the comal (griddle). “We urbanites have lost the taste of a real tortilla,” Leyva laments, citing pre-packaged masa flour. “What do we want? A return to the nature of things, to products that have identity. The gastronomical world is now playing a real role in awakening this scenario.”

Ironically, the heirloom tortilla may have a better chance of surviving outside of Mexico. That’s because it’s caught on with the “slow food movement,” a grassroots organization that spread globally in the late ’80s to promote local food traditions as an alternative to fast-food culture. It continues to attract small-scale farmers and food artisans worldwide who want to protect the environment, biodiversity and local communities with “good, clean, and fair food.” Heirloom corn is riding this wave as well as the growing gluten-free market, and has been embraced by upscale chefs largely in Mexico, U.S. and Europe.

Leyva was an early adapter. In 2001, he and his wife, Gabriela Fernandez Orantes, opened a small restaurant called Itanoní Antojeria y Tortilleria in Oaxaca City which began to attract food writers and tourists from abroad. Its menu features classical Oaxacan food made from stone-ground yellow-, blue-, black-, white- and burgundy-coloured kernels. Central valley campesinos provide the eatery’s maize. Most of her suppliers are now women, says Fernandez Orantes. So many men have left to find work north of the border.

All of which dovetails with the trend of customers wanting corn with more colour, diversity, flavour and texture, says Willcox, and also wanting to buy particularly from women. In the luxury culinary market, it’s all about the story. “The story is that these tortillas come from original Mexican heirloom maize cultivated by small farmers in the state of Oaxaca,” she says. Willcox is also involved in a farm-to-table project that connects small farmers and their grain with high-end gastronomic markets, largely in the U. S. “A certain proportion of consumers want to feel that their money is doing some good, supporting local growers—the women— and biodiversity.” 

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The project has come under criticism for redirecting native corn to niche markets, she says, but it’s an effective way to support both biodiversity and small producers. “We saw an opening and took it,” says Willcox. “It’s hard to maintain a family on the commercial price of maize, so if we can get them four or five times the price… then you have a hope of maintaining a [low-income] family.” 

Leyva is also helping campesinos tap into gourmet markets. He works with the Montreal-based Commission for Environmental Cooperation program that partners with indigenous farmers to improve their seed quality. Leyva, himself a Oaxaca native, helps campesino families tweak their harvest yields and distribution, taking surplus maize the indigenous farmers don’t need for their personal consumption and funnelling it to slow-food niche eateries sprouting in Mexico, U.S. Canada and Europe. He sees sustainable biodiversity as key to fighting famine while maintaining the cultural importance of corn in Mexico. “What are we without maize?” he asks on a drive to Santa Ana Zegache, a farming community south of Oaxaca, to meet one of the families in the CEC program. 

When we arrive at their farm, Limon Sanchez Cayetano, 58, and his wife, Natividade Ambrosio Ventura, 55, greet Leyva with warm hugs. They are culling the last harvest from November. Inside the yard, bales of dry stalks lean against a wall by a pile of yellow cobs spread on the ground in the sun. Nati shows me baskets of red corn drying behind the barn. They also have sacks of black and yellow corn. 

Nati counts the shiny grains nestled in tight columns; she is choosing the best ones to save for next year. “I do it like my mother showed me,” she says. “For example, we look for ears that have more rows. See this one? It has only 10. This other one has bigger grain and more rows.” Leyva tells her that what she’s doing is called “selective breeding.” Campesinos have “technical knowledge that comes from tradition that has survived centuries,” says Leyva.

Felipa Martinez is an Indigenous campesino farmer from the central valleys of Oaxaca. She’s gathering dry corn stalks to take home to use as firewood and to feed her animals. Seven of her children have immigrated. (Jean-Claude Teyssier)

Felipa Martinez is an Indigenous campesino farmer from the central valleys of Oaxaca. She’s gathering dry corn stalks to take home to use as firewood and to feed her animals. Seven of her children have immigrated. (Jean-Claude Teyssier)

But Nati says there are a lot of modern techniques that she’s started using since participating in the CEC program, which she hopes may help keep her family’s farm going. “I learned about pure compost, how to leave the wild greens for nutrition for the earth so it produces well, how I can make a little profit selling the seeds,” she says, wiping the tears from her face. “I didn’t save before but now I can.” The couple’s two adult children, a soldier and an accountant, live in the city and have no interest in taking over the three-acre farm. 

Each of Mexico’s unique strains of corn is adapted to its specific environment and climate. “Each plot of land is an identity,” Leyva says. “This maize is being preserved family by family, pueblo by pueblo. Corn is a living history—our link to our past and to our future.”

“If mankind doesn’t cultivate corn, the plant doesn’t exist,” he continues. “There’s an important relationship—it’s part of us. And not just in Mexico but the entire world. It’s the future of the earth’s food supply. What is happening to us, will happen everywhere to others.” 

Charlie Fidelman was the winner of a journalism grant from the non-profit Fonds québécois en journalisme international, which provides journalists with funding for reporting on international issues abroad. The foundation had no editorial input in this piece.

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