Noxious weeds, soil degradation, erratic rainfall, and soaring temperatures in Southern Belize are making it difficult for Mayan farmers to grow food.
“Like most farmers around the world, Mayans are experiencing drastic changes to their environment,” Henry Anton Peller, researcher at the Ohio State University, told delegates at the International Forum on Food and Nutrition in Milan, Italy last year, where he and his research partner Cathy Smith from the University of Edinburgh scooped first prize in the BCFN YES! Young Earth Solutions.
“To make matters worse, farmers are also losing much of their traditional agro-biodiversity, making them more vulnerable to environmental changes with fewer tools to adapt.”
Peller and Smith aim to directly confront these challenges through participatory agro-ecology schemes. Partnering with indigenous farmers in Southern Belize, the researchers implement what they call “the farmer-to-farmer learning process”.
“In simplest terms, we work with people, seeds, and soil – the fundamentals of agriculture,” Peller said.
“This is a methodology to organize farmer-led trials to select and share local seeds – lots of seeds. It serves to conserve existing crop diversity, improve basic crop traits and also to produce new and useful seeds. All of this goes to support farmers’ adaptation and resilience to climate change."
They phenotype dozens of cover crop legumes and landrace maize cultivars in controlled farms, allowing them to collect data on crop yield and performance. The seeds are then distributed to farmers to use on their farmland.
They also encourage farmers to use cover crops, such as macuna, lablab, canavalia and moringa, that bring numerous benefits. The crops sequester soil carbon, control weeds, conserve water, produce more protein and increase yields.
Organized by the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition (BCFN), the International Forum on Food and Nutrition is held each year in three different locations: Milan, Brussels and New York.
The event brings together academics, businesses and policymakers to share evidence, scientific data and best practices with the goal of creating a model of sustainable food to reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
At these forums, it hosts the BCFN YES! Young Earth Solutions, an international contest open to PhD candidates and young researchers around the world working on innovative projects on food and sustainability.
Innovation and organization
Peller and Smith have worked in Southern Belize since 2015 and last year collaborated with around 65 Mayan farmers in three villages.
“We share ideas and conduct experiments together. This process is called farmer-to-farmer in many languages around the world and it’s a powerful learning approach,” said Peller.
“It is Mayan people who are leading this work, from designing to implementing, and that’s what makes our work so transformative. Innovation and organization alongside the communities.”
The researchers began the plant breeding program in January 2018 and will use the BCFN grant to expand the trials throughout 2019 and amplify the
farmer-to-farmer program, reaching “hundreds” of farmers.
'Science can only be transformative when built on social movements'
They will also publish their results in two scientific papers and make a short film with the Mayan farmers to spread the word about the benefits of participatory agroecology.
Upon being awarded first prize and a €20,000 grant to invest in the project, Peller said: “We genuinely believe that this process and these technologies, but more importantly, the organization that we are building can directly support farmers to confront climate change."
Smith said: “Science is great but we believe that it can only be transformative in [changing] people’s lives when it is built together with personal relationships and social movements.”