Conserving the Genetic Biodiversity of Maize in Mexico: Understanding a complex problem and developing participatory solutions


Fern Wickson receives funding for a new 3 year transdisciplinary research project on conserving maize genetic biodiversity from the Latin American Programme of the Norwegian Research Council.

For each of the important crop plants that we eat, there are thousands of different types that exist, each with its own unique set of characteristics and capacities. In modern agricultural practice, however, we only grow a select few of these, focusing on ones with characteristics that we value now, such as rapid growth or high yield. By concentrating on only a few varieties, we risk losing the diversity that has developed over years of evolution, domestication and breeding. Conserving this biodiversity is important, not only for its own sake, but because as conditions change in the future, e.g. with climate change or as new pests and diseases emerge, we may need this diverse base to find and/or develop plants able to survive in the new conditions and continue to provide us with nourishment.

There are currently two main ways to conserve different varieties of crop plants and their genetic biodiversity. One of these is to have farmers continue ancient agricultural practices, i.e. growing many different types of the plant, crossing them to breed new ones, and exchanging seeds within and across communities. The second approach is to store seeds from different plants in local and international seed banks, where they can remain until needed.

This project will examine these two approaches for the case of maize. It will investigate the challenges and opportunities for the ‘on farm’ conservation model in four communities in Mexico (where maize first originated), working with native women farmers on the preservation of their local maize varieties. The project will then compare and contrast this ‘on farm’ approach with that of the global seed vault on Svalbard, which is used by countries all around the world as a safety deposit box for their seeds. The project will involve participation from people working with both models to understand how they can overcome any existing challenges and work together to ensure the conservation of maize genetic biodiversity for the future.