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Classic milpa maize intercropping system feeds and nourishes marginalized communities

A maize ear harvested from a “milpa,” the maize-based intercrop that is a critical source of food and nutritional security for smallholder farming communities in remote areas such as the Western Highlands of Guatemala. Photo: Cristian Reyna/UAM, Mexico
Esta historia también está disponible en español: El sistema clásico de cultivo intercalado de la milpa alimenta y nutre a las comunidades marginadas

Traditional milpa intercrop — in which maize is grown together with beans, squash, and other crops — can furnish a vital supply of food and essential nutrients for marginalized, resource-poor communities in the Americas, according to a study published in Nature Scientific Reports.

One hectare of a milpa comprising maize, common beans, and potatoes can provide the annual carbohydrate needs of more than 13 adults, enough protein for nearly 10 adults, and adequate supplies of many vitamins and minerals. Based on data from nearly 1,000 households across 59 villages of the Western Highlands of Guatemala, the study is the first to relate milpa intercropping diversity with nutritional capacity, using multiple plots and crop combinations.

“Milpa production anchored around locally-adapted maize is still an essential food and nutritional lifeline for isolated, often indigenous communities throughout Mexico and Central America, and can be tailored to improve their food and nutritional security, along with that of small-scale farmers in similar settings,” said Santiago López-Ridaura, a specialist in agricultural systems and climate change adaptation at CIMMYT and lead author of the article.

The Western Highlands of Guatemala is among the world’s poorest regions — a mountainous area, ill-served by markets and where communities battered by food insecurity and malnutrition sow crops at altitudes of up to 3,200 meters, according to Cristian A. Reyna-Ramírez, a co-author of the study from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco, Mexico.

Natalia Palacios Rojas, CIMMYT maize quality and nutrition expert and a co-author of this article, notes that calculations of this and other milpa studies consider raw essential nutrients, and that research is needed on the nutritional contributions of cooked food and non-milpa foods such as poultry, livestock, home-garden produce, and purchased food — which, because most smallholder farm households that practice milpa agriculture have far less than a hectare of land, are essential supplementary food sources. Further work should also address the effects of storing milpa products on its nutrient stability and how the seasonal availability of milpa crops impacts diets and nutrition.

This work was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger, and food security initiative, under the Buena Milpa project, and supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE).