12/16/2014 10:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From Silver Bullets to Silver Systems


A post about efforts to increase the iron in black beans in Guatemala, and the lessons seeds have for international development.

Today we have our friends at the ICTA, Harvest Plus, IFPRI, MAGA, Semillas for the Future, INCAP, Universidad del Valle and a few others talking about how we can run a pilot project for black beans that have double the levels of iron. Guatemala has some of the highest rates of anemia in the world, and combined with traditional malnutrition, it's a deadly combination for the population. Beans with more iron is just like the corn with more protein that Semilla Nueva works on -- a way farmers can grow their own solution to these big problems. It's a strategy called biofortification.

The ICTA is the Guatemalan government institution responsible for developing new seeds for the country's small farmers. As we watch the presentations of the hundreds of seeds with double iron levels that they have tried around the country, you get to see something really interesting. In some areas one seed was a huge winner -- helping farmers double their yield while also doubling the amount of iron each pound of black beans. But these winners in other parts of the country were huge losers. There yields were less than the varieties of beans that the farmers are growing right now.

In about 10 of the areas, there was a new variety the government was evaluating that could greatly increase yields and nutritional quality. In about three the farmers' varieties still had far higher yields. So there is a huge amount of potential -- but the potential isn't for just one seed. Only from having a huge amount of data, and a constant flow of data, does one get to see each new seed could really make a huge difference. Guatemala is a very diverse country, and so this makes a lot of sense.

I think this is the point though -- development is moving away from miracles plants, miracle solutions and all sorts of silver bullets. What we need instead are the miracle systems where we figure out what the new miracle could be in a specific municipality or a specific community. This requires constant new ideas, constant measurement, and a hyper efficient way to share and interpret all of that data. Systems like Conservation Earth in the CIMMYT/MasAgro program in Mexico do a lot to provide these possibilities, but there is a long way to go in our understanding and use of these systems.

The bottom line of the conference is easy to understand: There is an immense potential to affect the nutrition and income of small farmers throughout Guatemala by improving the black bean seeds they use. But the challenge we will all face is how to collaborate to make that possible, when different areas require different varieties -- when the identification of those areas, the reproduction of that seed, the sharing of that information and work load will require a massive change in how we all work. From silver bullets to silver systems.

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