The Role of Biofortified Maize in Responding to Northern Triangle Migration to the U.S.

By Rachel Pak

Romulo Gonzalez begins his days early, tending to his maize field on the Southern Coast of Guatemala. He is part of the 31 percent of the Guatemalan labor force that depends on agriculture for their family’s livelihood. Frequent droughts have severely impacted harvests, causing Romulo’s neighbors to struggle to provide enough food for their families. Food shortages have caused many to head for the U.S. border recently, an option Romulo began to consider as well.

However, a year ago, Romulo switched to a brand of maize seeds called Fortaleza. Despite costing the same as traditional seeds, the new seeds better withstood drought and increased Romulo’s yields and take-home pay. This maize is also biofortified and will improve the nutritional value of those who consume it.

Fortaleza is a brand of seeds produced by Semilla Nueva, a Guatemala City non-profit that seeks to address development challenges through the production and sale of biofortified maize. Developed in partnership with The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and HarvestPlus, the world’s leading experts on maize seeds and biofortification, these biofortified seeds are more drought resistant and higher-yielding than their predecessors, directly improving farmers’ livelihoods. Semilla Nueva drives adoption of biofortified maize by selling the seed at cost, setting the market price to cover production expenses. According to internal research, their current seed succeeds in increasing yields by 13 percent and profits by $164 per bag compared to other mid-priced seeds.

Semilla Nueva’s seed, which contains increased levels of quality protein and zinc, also targets chronic malnutrition from grain-dependent diets. With the sixth highest rate of stunting in the world, poor nutrition costs Guatemala $8.4 million daily in reduced productivity, hospitalization and low education achievement. In a country where maize makes up more than 50 percent of the diet for high-risk groups like pregnant and lactating women, Semilla Nueva concurrently improves nutrition and promotes development, creating the potential to address key push-factors for Central American migration to the U.S.

Migration from the Northern Triangle to the United States

Migration to the U.S. from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – a region known as the Northern Triangle – has steadily increased, growing 25 percent between 2007 and 2015. Beginning in 2014, the U.S. started to see unprecedented peaks in the number of families and unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle arriving at the border. Guatemalans have increasingly made up a significant portion of migrants, with 42,000 Guatemalan families apprehended at the border in 2018— roughly double the previous year’s count.

The dialogue around Northern Triangle migration has mostly focused on severe violence, but a growing body of evidence also points to the link between food security and migration within the region. There is a critical need to examine these complex drivers of migration, as well as the need for interventions focused on sustainable agriculture and rural development to effectively address those drivers.

The Link Between Food Security, Climate Variability, and Migration

In August 2017, the World Food Programme (WFP) released a study citing poverty and unemployment as the primary reasons for migration from the Dry Corridor – an area of the Northern Triangle that is vulnerable to prolonged drought conditions. Moreover, they discovered high rates of food insecurity among the migrated families, with 47 percent unable to consistently put food on the table — an unprecedented level within the region and on par with other global humanitarian crises.

Climate variability also impacts the relationship between food security and migration. The first peak of Northern Triangle migration to the U.S. in 2014 coincided with the onset of severe drought conditions, as poor rainfall in the region led to reduced agricultural production that jeopardized families’ food supply and income. The Dry Corridor is considered to be one of the areas most vulnerable to adverse weather related to climate change, and WFP officials estimate that more than two million people within Central America could be affected by hunger due to climate-induced harvest loss.

The WFP concluded that migration is the “ultimate coping mechanism” for food insecure families— the case in which “a desperate situation forces the poorest families to emigrate,” and take the highest risks in order to survive. The evident link between food security and migration underscores the importance of policies focused on agriculture and rural development to improve food sources and nutrition in the Northern Triangle, and ultimately, to address core causes of migration.

A Biofortified Future

Semilla Nueva currently holds 1 percent of the Guatemalan maize market, and they aim to increase to 4 percent next year— meaning more families will be planting, consuming and selling more nutritious and drought resistant maize. Semilla Nueva also plans to launch high-tier biofortified seeds with even better margins for farmers, offsetting more organizational costs to ultimately reach financial sustainability. Eventually, they envision a national policy push to mandate biofortified crops. For the migration crisis to be effectively addressed, more policies must focus on food security and nutrition as drivers of development within Central America.

Photo by Horticulture Innovation Lab on Flickr

Rachel Pak is the Communications Coordinator at Semilla Nueva, where she leads the development and execution of the organization’s multi-channel and international communications strategy. Rachel holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government and Politics with dual minors in Spanish Language and Cultures and Law and Society from the University of Maryland, College Park and is a 2016 Princeton in Latin America Fellow.