By Marianella Aguirre
Wednesday, May 1st , International Laborers Day, was a very important day for local corn producers in El Salvador, as it was the Mangrove Association’s first day of semilla criolla certificada or certified native seed production. I visited the local seed production plant where the seed was processed and packaged, and had the opportunity to speak at length with Juan Luna, Program Director of the Diversified Agriculture Program about the future possibilities of corn seed production in El Salvador.
For the past 20 years, the government of El Salvador has dedicated its agricultural efforts to strengthening ties with big agribusiness companies—leaving small agricultural production efforts abandoned. The role of the government has been to provide individual subsidies to families by contracting agribusiness to supply paquetes or packets of corn seed and fertilizer on a yearly basis.
Since the new shift in government in 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) has also implemented a new shift in policy. Individual subsidies are still provided to family farmers, however, instead of solely contracting big agribusiness companies, such as Monsanto (owned by former president Cristiani), the government now contracts local Salvadoran family farmers to supply certified seed through the Family Agriculture Program.
In order to strengthen this program, the government has also rehabilitated regional MAG offices (which had also been out of use), that now coordinate with institutions like our partners at the Mangrove Association, to help train local cooperatives to grow seed and certify it. The goal of the Family Agriculture Program is to help subsidize 325,000 families nationally to produce local seed. This certified corn seed is distributed as packets of 22 lbs and fertilizer to individual family farmers.
The government has come a long way in taking steps to become independent from huge agribusiness companies, but there is still room for growing and diversifying the Family Agriculture Program. Currently, almost 100% of the certified corn seed is a local hybrid variation. This variety cannot be stored for continuous production. It must be bought on a yearly basis, which is why the distribution of subsidized corn seed is a huge necessity for subsistence family farmers who cultivate hybrid corn.
Native seed, alternatively, can be stored for continuous production and does not have to be bought on a yearly basis—you only need to buy it once. The Ministry of Agriculture could benefit greatly from adopting new policy to promote native seed production, as it would reduce the need to subsidize corn seed to family farmers on a yearly basis. Families would not need to depend on receiving packets for subsistence farming every year.
In the past, companies like Monsanto benefited from selling hybrid seed to the government, because they made the government dependent on purchasing their seed every year. With native seed the first harvest would be for consumption. The second harvest would be for seed production. The third harvest can then be used for production at a larger scale—and so on—giving producers the option to sell.
Cost efficiency, however, is not the only reason native seed is winning the attention of local producers. “Native seed is more environmentally sustainable. It is more resistant to local illnesses, plagues and climate changes. Native corn seed provides nutritional security. It also does not require a huge quantity of fertilizers,” said Leo Montiagudo, Project Manager at the Mangrove Association.
So why isn’t everybody riding the native seed train? Native seed produces less corn than the hybrid seed per hectare, which makes the commercial viability less appealing to producers. Convincing local producers to plant native seed is still at a very low turnout rate. Everything depends on whether or not producers accept native seed and want it. This is difficult because producing hybrid seed is something that the population has known for many years, since the land was divided in a hacienda system. Thus there is a great lack of knowledge of the benefits of native seed, indigenous to the region.
However, there are a handful of people who have worked, using native seeds for a long time. The Mangrove Association has worked alongside some of those people to learn from them and teach others about native seed production. The agricultural school in Ciudad Romero has been a great tool for this purpose. “At the school, students are taught the successes of how our ancestors started cultivating, in comparison to how we live today. It helps to educate the population and motivates them to try,” Leo Montiagudo explains.
This year, The Mangrove Association produced certified corn seed on 53 manzanas or 37.1 ha, 6% of which was semilla criolla or native seed (of the Santa Rosa variety) that was processed and sold to the Ministry of Agriculture—a huge challenge and success. In addition, 100 family farmers, who participate in the Mangrove Association’s ‘green credit’ program—which acts as a seed bank, loaning seeds to farmers who then pay the seed bank back by returning seeds from their harvest at a later date—harvest native corn seed.
For now, in order to compete with the corn previously supplied in the paquetes, the Santa Rosa seed has been cultivated in a conventional way—using chemicals in 60% of the production process. The Mangrove Association is currently investigating more environmentally sustainable ways of cultivating this variety. “In the beginning, nobody understood the term certified native seed. We have all learned from the process.”-Leo