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New genetically modified maize varieties move in, threatening native species

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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.
Most people in Canada, Europe or the U.S. expect their corn to be yellow or white, but in Mexico maize comes in a wide range of varieties and colors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Although maize is indigenous to the Yucatán and has a history that stretches back thousands of years, several local varieties have become extremely rare. 

Such is the case of the Nuuk Nal variety, which survives only in a handful of fields in the municipalities of Peto and Xoy. 

Heirloom maize varieties have been largely abandoned in favor of genetically modified weather and plague-resistant crops. 

“Getting your hands on viable seeds is becoming more and more difficult. If something is not done these ancient varieties could be lost forever,” said Nicasio Díaz, an agricultural worker and conservation advocate. 

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 Díaz.

Several agricultural workers have begun to float the idea of creating a seed bank to protect the biodiversity of Yucatán, including the Nuuk Nal and Naal Xoy. 

Though the project is still in its initial stages, local agricultural workers are optimistic that it will get done and are petitioning the government and several environmental organizations for funding.  

Earlier: In Yucatán, Mondays were made for frijol con puerco

Known as corn north of the border, maize is a cereal grain first domesticated by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico, roughly 10,000 years ago. 

The crop was also an important cornerstone of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Maya, who deified the grain in the form of the god Yum-Kaax. 

Just as was the case thousands of years ago, people in Yucatán today use a process called nixtamalization, through which 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.

Over the past few centuries, maize has become a staple food in many parts of the world, with the total production of maize surpassing that of wheat or rice.

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