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Democratizing crop improvement

Maize breeders in the Mexican highlands are increasingly looking to farmers for input on how to improve crops, after decades of having little impact in these areas. It is estimated that only 7-15% of maize seed planted in the highlands of Mexico State is of improved varieties. “Considering that the Mexican highlands represent 10% of the 6.3 million hectares of highland maize grown globally, this constitutes a glaring discrepancy between those who have benefited from maize breeding programs and those who have not,” says Brian Love, a consultant working with CIMMYT’s global maize program.

Now CIMMYT’s highland maize breeding program is turning to farmers in the state of Mexico for their input. As part of a joint project involving CIMMYT and the US and Mexican Departments of Agriculture, farmers are being asked to give their opinion about improved varieties currently available. Farmers from La Purificación and Tepetlaoxtoc, two villages near CIMMYT’s El Batán research station in Mexico, came to the station and voted on improved maize varieties provided by CIMMYT and other maize breeding programs in the region, including the Mexican national agricultural research program (INIFAP) and the Colegio de Postgraduados. A CIMMYT yellow maize under development and H-40 of INIFAP were clear winners. Farmers explained their desire for materials that perform well under rainfed conditions, resist ear rots, escape frosts, and have small cobs.

“One of the easiest ways for everyone to have their say is to put it to a vote,” says Love. “Democracy is allowed to rule and a CIMMYT staff member facilitates a discussion aimed at learning why selected varieties were preferred. The process allows farmers to experience new maize varieties and researchers to better understand farmers’ circumstances and preferences, both of which should help promote the adoption of improved materials.”

CIMMYT entomology lab technician, Carlos Muñoz, was instrumental in organizing the event, and INIFAP plant breeders Gustavo Valázquez and José Luis Arellano participated. Velázquez, who conducts nearly all of his trials with farmers, felt the voting technique (originally developed by researchers at IRRI  in the Philippines for use with upland rice growers in Laos) was effective in highland maize trials, and that INIFAP could apply it.