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Community seed banks safeguard Yucatán’s rich biodiversity

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Matina Ek poses proudly in front of Yaxuná’s very own seed bank. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As genetically modified crops become more prevalent in Yucatán’s fields and shops, there is a growing concern that traditional heirloom species may be lost forever. 

Belonging to the municipality of Yaxcaba, Yaxuná is a tiny town of under 800 people where traditional agriculture and apiculture remain central to everyday life. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But over the past few years, community seed banks are sprouting up to help preserve Yucatán’s agricultural biodiversity.

Although maize is indigenous to Yucatán and has a history that stretches back thousands of years, several local varieties have become extremely rare.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One such seed bank named K’an-Lol, in Yaxuná, is “loaning” seeds to subsistence farmers so that they may use these traditional varieties in place of genetically modified seeds.

“We call ourselves a seed bank, but really we are more like a library. Members of the community borrow some seeds and then replace them with new ones from their crops,” explains Martina Ek, who took Yucatán Magazine on a tour around their facility. 

Francisco Canul Poot shows off his most recent crop of corn grown from seeds from Yaxuná’s seed bank. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Most people taking the seed bank up on their offer are subsistence farmers who cultivate their milpa to help feed their families — with occasional small surpluses making their way to local markets.

Yaxuná’s seed bank is run by local volunteers with support and expertise from Fundacion Haciendas del Mundo Maya.

A sculpture of the Maya god of maize, Yum Kaax sits in the park across from Yaxuná’s seed bank, showing off his bounty in approval. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“At the foundation, we work with several projects looking to improve the quality of life of people across Yucatán in real and tangible ways through social, environmental, cultural, and health initiatives,” said project coordinator Guadalupe Us García.

Nal and Naal Xoy varieties, which are practically impossible to get ahold of commercially. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though more vulnerable to drought, traditional varieties of maize such as the Nuuk Nal, which has a reddish color, tend to be larger and more nutritious than their genetically modified counterparts, according to conservation advocate Nicasio Díaz.

Preservation aside, environmentalists note that maintaining biodiversity is tremendously important for food security, as GMO crops have an exceedingly shallow gene pool and when infected with an illness are prone to cause the collapse of agriculture across large regions. 

“Genetic pollution” in Mexico has become Exhibit A for critics of crop genetic engineering and the focus of angry charges and counterclaims by biotechnology researchers. Like many disputes about science and technology, this one is linked to economic and resource-control conflicts,” says Kathleen McAfee of Yale’s School of Environmental Studies. 

Wild lentils found scattered on the ground in a field on the outskirts of Yaxuná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Corn grown in Yaxuná is turned into a variety of foods, including of course tortillas, using a process developed by the ancient Maya called nixtamalization. 

The homes and kitchens of people in Yaxuná resemble in significant ways those which would have been used by their ancestors thousands of years ago. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Through nixtamalization, maize is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution made up of lime water. It is then washed and hulled. Nixtamalized maize has several benefits including easier grinding, a considerable increase in nutritional value, as well as improved taste and aroma.

Despite being so small, Yaxuná has made a reputation for itself for great cuisine as exemplified by Chef Rosalia Chay who was featured on an episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table.” Photo: Courtesy

But despite the efforts of seed banks in rural areas, the vast majority of people in Yucatán continue to eat corn products derived from genetically modified crops.

The majority of tortillas for sale across the state are made from processed GMO seeds, which may or may not have undergone nixtamalization. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But thanks to a new awareness of the importance of protecting heirloom varieties of maize and other traditional crops, more and more people are consciously seeking out products made from traditional varieties. 

Aside from being more environmentally sustainable, tortillas made from heirloom maize tend to taste better and come in a wide variety of attractive colors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In recent years, Yaxuná has also begun to attract the attention of tourists looking to explore the area’s many cenotes, as well as the archaeological site of the same name. 

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