Back to where they came from

Alejandra Nawrocki, Crop Trust/Rhodes Summer Intern and Michael Major, Crop Trust

Sixty years ago, scientists collected seeds from a special maize crop in the municipality of Jala in western Mexico. The maize appeared to be endemic to the community and was thought to have the largest ears and tallest plants of any maize landrace in the world. Eventually, samples of those collected seeds were conserved in what was to become the CIMMYT genebank.

Now, those seeds are being sent back to where they came from.

“Seeds that may serve a vital role in increasing genetic variability and protecting the world’s most important crops are being re-awakened after hibernating for decades in genebanks,” said Vanessa Ocampo, an agricultural economist who recently completed a Genebank Platform Impact Fellows program. “We’re starting to see some of these seeds find their way home.”

Sending seeds home

Like travelers who return to their homeland after time abroad, seeds may find their homes drastically different as a result of land use changes, environmental degradation, different farming systems, and changes in government policy.

“We’re using the term rematriation to describe this homecoming of seeds,” said Denise Costich, the maize collection manager at CIMMYT’s Maize and Wheat Germplasm Bank. “It’s a term that is gaining some traction with Native American communities. I was inspired by the work of Rowen White, a Mohawk seed keeper who created the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. She has been a remarkable advocate for rematriation, a term most probably coined by Martin Prechtel in 2012.”

Denise uses rematriation to refer to the transfer of germplasm, in this case seeds, from an institution maintaining a collection directly back to the community from which it was originally obtained, for use and on-farm conservation.

“Rematriation encompasses the idea of returning ancestral landraces back to ‘Mother Earth’ for in situ conservation by farmers after decades of ex situ preservation in genebanks,” said Vanessa. “The seeds return to the motherland – matria – where they will be nourished and protected.”

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico is fostering the rematriation process and is working with communities to bring maize landraces home.

“The rematriation process allows our genebank to build a more integrative, collaborative, and respectful partnership with landrace farmers and create a synergism between in situ and ex situ forms of genetic resources conservation,” said Denise. “We view rematriation as a circular model for genetic resources, in which an evolutionary conservation strategy – in situ – is coupled with a static conservation process – ex situ. This can potentially generate a cycle of germplasm exchange where conservation, use and improvement are all happening simultaneously, and building on each other.”

Awakening a giant

The giant Jala maize still grows in its native environment, but its iconic ears appear to be shrinking. “There are numerous hypotheses to explain why this is occurring, including inbreeding, cross pollination with smaller landraces, and environmental and management changes,” said Vanessa. “This presents us with a fascinating opportunity, as we have a ‘sleeping giant’ in the CIMMYT genebank, whose genetic makeup has been preserved as it was 60 years ago.”

The CIMMYT genebank team and its national partners have implemented a holistic multi-step strategy, combining ex situ and in situ practices to help restore the original Jala landrace.

First, the genebank planted the seeds of the ex situ-conserved accessions and planted them in farmers’ fields in Jala Valley. This allowed them to test the vigor of the accessions and to describe what they look like. Next, the genebank staff made a public request to Jala maize producers in the municipality to donate the seeds that they have been growing. At the same time, the genebank collected seed from 269 maize ears donated by 28 farmers in different localities in and around the Jala Valley, and planted them in a plot, creating a “Jala genepool population,” to expand the genetic base of the landrace and create a freely available community resource. The researchers then regenerated both the newly collected and ex situ-conserved seeds in a plot in the Jala municipality and compared the variation.

A workshop was held so local farmers could also share their knowledge and experiences. The CIMMYT team organized a field demonstration to show producers how to effectively select for desired whole plant and ear traits, for example, shorter plants and longer ears.

The project breathed new life into the Concurso de la Mazorca más Larga del Mundo, or the Largest Ear of Corn in the World Contest. The contest encourages the conservation of locally grown seed and reverse the “negative selection” that could be the reason for the smaller cobs. A similar contest had been held in the valley since the 1980s, which helped save the landrace but has not been able to stop the changes in ear size. The contest used to take place in August, during the green ear stage, when the corn kernels are still soft, and ready for eating, but are not mature enough to be planted. The new contest takes place in December, when the kernels are mature and can be stored and ultimately planted. The contest also featured a debate with young persons about the future of Jala maize.

“These steps are part of a larger group of activities that make up the Jala Rematriation Project,” said Denise. “But returning the seeds to the farmers does not ensure that the farmers are going to use them and plant them.” Therefore, the CIMMYT genebank, together with their colleagues in CIMMYT’s Socioeconomics Program, are developing complementary activities, such as market analyses, workshops with women and young people, and efforts to increase consumers’ awareness of the importance of the Jala landrace.

Maintaining cultural legacy through seeds

“By supporting rematriation processes and promoting in situ conservation methods, we are building a strong relationship between researchers and agricultural producers,” said Carolina Camacho, a social scientist at CIMMYT. “That will help us promote an exchange of different types of knowledge in which scientists and farmers are working together to conserve and make the most of landraces.”

For the farmers of Jala, planting Jala maize is more than just putting food on the table. It represents the maintenance of their cultural heritage, a way to honor the legacy of their ancestors. Landraces such as Jala provide an important connection to tradition and cultural identity in their respective communities.

“Rematriation is, in short, a way to ensure the physical survival of a cultural legacy and at the same time to improve livelihoods of the communities who created this diversity in the first place,” said Carolina.

Beyond Jala

CIMMYT is also using rematriation processes in a project in the western highlands of Guatemala, with local groups like the Asociación de Organizaciones de los Cuchumatanes (ASOCUCH), which support agricultural development and agrobiodiversity conservation in the region. “We sent 785 accessions from our genebank back to Guatemala in 2016,” said Denise, who recently travelled there to check on the fate of those accessions. “Many of them were grown in field trials, and the most well-liked were multiplied and are in various stages of mass selection for improvement, and ultimately for return directly to farmers as improved open-pollinated varieties.”

CIMMYT is not alone in sending genebank accessions back to local communities for safeguarding. The International Potato Center (CIP) has sent accessions to the Andean farmers near Cusco who have developed the Potato Park to safeguard hundreds of cultivars of native potatoes. CIP rematriated varieties which had been collected in the 1960s but had since been lost from farmers’ fields.

But it’s not just about sending the seeds back to where they came from. CGIAR genebanks are developing and implementing novel, circular, dynamic conservation strategies which give farmers more access to crop genetic resources while reducing the genetic erosion of valuable landraces. Even giants need a helping hand sometime.