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How a seed bank in Mexico produces data to help alleviate poverty

Scientist Kevin Pixley leads a project to catalogue 178,000 corn and wheat seeds at the CIMMYT seed bank near Mexico City.

Maize seed samples in CIMMYT's seed bank. CIMMYT/file
Maize (also known as corn) seed samples in CIMMYT’s seed bank. CIMMYT/file

DES MOINES, Iowa (CIMMYT) – Scientist Kevin Pixley holds a large, clear plastic bottle up to the light to illuminate the yellow corn kernels inside. He is leading a project to catalogue 178,000 corn and wheat seeds at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center’s (CIMMYT) seed bank near Mexico City.

“The difficulty farmers and researchers face is that no matter how hard they look they can’t see inside a seed to predict its hardiness – they never know whether it will withstand the growing conditions it will experience,” said Pixley, who will speak at the 2017 Borlaug Dialogue symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 18.

CIMMYT’s mission is to apply maize and wheat science for improved livelihoods around the world.

“Our seed bank provides a sub-zero temperature refuge for the largest collection of maize and wheat seeds in the world,” explained Pixley, who leads CIMMYT’s Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) project. “Recent technological advances are accelerating our understanding of the inner workings of these seeds, making them ever more useful to researchers and farmers.

“Through conservation, characterization and use of natural biodiversity, we’re not just helping to improve livelihoods for smallholder farmers in the present, but we’re building our capacity to thwart future threats to food security,” Pixley said. “Every year we ship some 300,000 maize and wheat seed samples to farmers and researchers.”

Through the SeeD partnership between CIMMYT, Mexico’s ministry of agriculture (SAGARPA) and the MasAgro (Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture) project, scientists are developing the capacity for farmers to prepare for specific or as yet unanticipated needs.

“Seeds of Discovery offers the next generation of Mexican scientists the training and technologies they need to support food security,” said Jorge Armando Narvaez Narvaez, Mexico’s sub-secretary of agriculture.

“In some ways our work has only just begun, but we’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we would be thanks to applying new technologies to secure the food and nutrition needs of our growing population,” Pixley said.

For further information:

Seeds of Discovery video: https://www.cimmyt.org/seed/

Seeds of Discovery website: http://seedsofdiscovery.org/

Farming First TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDwBtWRiHxs

Al Jazeera: Crop Biodiversity the Key to Ending Hunger

For interviews: Julie Mollins, CIMMYT communications j.mollins [at] cgiar [dot] org