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To profile amaranth production in Mexico, we selected two organizations that focus on the cultivation and promotion of amaranth as a tool for regional food sovereignty, resilience to climate change, and the creation of economic opportunities. The first, Quali, grows and manufactures value added amaranth food products for distribution across Mexico, as well as select markets in the US and Europe, while Puente a la Salud Comunitaria has developed a sophisticated locally-based supply chain designed to provide livelihoods and improved nutrition in farming communities across Oaxaca.
Amaranthus hypochondriacus is a herbaceous plant growing 4 to 9 feet (1.2-3 m) tall. High in protein, fiber, vitamins, several essential amino acids and low in saturated fats, Amaranth’s small seed has impressive nutritional features that have recently popularized it worldwide as a super-food. Amaranth has been cultivated for centuries in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley region of Mexico. Mexico’s traditional agriculture, the wise poly-cultivation system known as milpa, featured amaranth, maize and beans grown together forming a powerful nutritional triad. The Green Revolution, starting in the 1940s, pushed farmers to ‘modernize’ by planting solely corn, drastically decreasing the production, consumption and awareness of amaranth. Increasing awareness of amaranth’s nutritional benefits has the potential to elevate the grain from a regional dessert ingredient to an important global crop, with positive economic, environmental and social repercussions for Mexican farmers. This tiny seed is helping farmers reclaim their heritage and fight malnutrition.
Amaranth grows best in hot, tropical environments but can grow in temperate regions without frost. Amaranth is comparatively drought resistant, making it a valuable crop in times of erratic climatic change and water scarcity. With its tiny grains, a small amount of amaranth by weight can plant a large area, making it a cost-effective crop for small farmers. Compared to the number of seeds used for planting, amaranth produces a high yield with large seed heads and up to 60,000 grains per stalk. The grain is harvested an average of 90-180 days after planting, depending on the variety and season’s weather. Amaranth leaves are picked carefully to avoid slowing down the maturation of the grain. Amaranth is often grown in field rotation with beans and corn to prevent soil degradation.
QUALI IS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE based in the Puebla and Oaxaca States of Mexico. Their nonprofit sister organization, Alternativas y Procesos de Participación Social (Alternativas), has worked to promote and support amaranth production since 1980 by reintroducing drought-resistant seeds to the region, preserving traditional knowledge, organizing cooperatives in 60 communities, and supporting 1,100 smallholder producer families. To create a reliable market for amaranth and sustain more job opportunities, Alternativas created Quali (which means ‘good’ in the Náhuatl language), a cooperative group that creates and markets amaranth value-added products. Quali provides technical support and above-market price for amaranth to producers, while creating formal employment opportunities across the supply chain through vertical integration. Quali’s products nourish consumers in Mexico, Europe and the United States while financially sustaining Quali’s social enterprise model.
At the beginning of the planting season each year, Quali signs the “Quali Buys Quality Amaranth” agreement with farmers organized in local cooperatives and the farmers they represent. These farmers decide how much amaranth they wish to grow, agree to follow Quali’s organic production guidelines, then grow amaranth in a field rotation with beans and corn. In turn, Quali provides agroecological technicians to support the implementation of practices that help build and maintain soil health without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Finally, Quali guarantees an above market value price per kilo of amaranth.
Amaranth is comparatively drought resistant, making it a valuable crop in times of erratic climatic change and water scarcity. It is also a promising crop for areas with high soil salinity. With its tiny grains, a small amount of amaranth by weight can plant a large area, making it a cost-effective crop for small farmers. Compared to the number of seeds used for planting, amaranth produces a high yield with large seed heads and up to 60,000 grains per stalk. The Green Revolution pushed farmers to “modernize” by solely planting corn, leaving behind traditional poly-cultures, which left them vulnerable to swings in commodity prices in the international market. By returning to amaranth cultivation, especially in rotation with corn and beans, producers are able to fight malnutrition in their communities and gain independence from the international market.
The amaranth grain is close to a complete protein with 10 essential amino acids including lysine, which most other grains lack. A serving of amaranth contains upwards of 20% of the recommended daily value of protein, fiber, vitamin B6 and several other minerals. Amaranth leaves, when cooked, contain high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium and manganese and notable amounts of iron and potassium. Amaranth producers provide nutrient and food security to their homes and communities and Quali provides high quality, nutritious amaranth products to consumers throughout Mexico.
Throughout their supply chain, Quali focuses on supporting women. Along with a large portion of amaranth producers, women make up a large portion of factory workers, and are in charge of production, quality control and new product creation.
Farmers organized in local cooperatives, supported by Quali, serve as a vital platform for farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing. Producers voluntarily join the cooperatives, where they are able to collectively negotiate amaranth price, share machinery for processing, and exchange practices and production knowledge. Quali’s agroecological technician team- set in place in 1980 and composed of agronomists, a microbiologist, veterinarians and agroecologists—support local cooperatives and producers by sharing their knowledge and training.
The domestication of amaranth, corn, beans, chile and other crops in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley region dates back to 6500 BC. The people were incredibly skilled agrarians who not only began the cultivation of many important crops, but also developed irrigation runoff control technology, as seen in the Purrón Dam Complex.
Quali, and it’s nonprofit sister, the organization Alternativas, support farmers in maintaining and reinvigorating traditional agricultural practices by promoting the reintroduction of amaranth production and supporting projects that increase water quality and quantity in areas that are increasingly hit by drought. Their work helps continue the resilient land use practices put in place thousands of years ago.
Quali provides security to farmers, as they return year after year to create an understanding and internal agreement among farmers and the regional cooperative, setting the terms of quantity, quality, and price. This secures the farmers an above market price per kilo of grain and support in production. Youth in campesino communities recognize that there is promise in a future of farming and no longer find it necessary to leave for big cities or the U.S. to find work opportunities.
In the early 1990s, Quali was a small scale cultivation and processing business. Then in 1994, a huge economic disaster and bank failure hit Latin America, and Quali decided they needed to create jobs with amaranth to provide economic opportunities to a larger swath of people during the economic crisis. One of the founders of Quali, Raúl Hernández Garciadiego, visited an Indian dairy cooperative movement, AMUL, and was impressed with their direct marketing and processing- they had found a way to avoid intermediaries. Next, Raúl discovered MONDRAGON, a cluster of cooperatives in the Basque Country of Spain that had created a synergistic network of cooperatives. Inspired, Quali decided to invent, design and build machinery to process amaranth, and create a vertically integrated supply chain that would provide jobs throughout the value chain and avoid intermediaries. Now, Quali does all their own processing and does not sell raw grain, as they are able to recover the investment in organic certification and pay a good price to farmers by selling their own processed products. Quali has created a value chain that supports rural and urban communities.
In 1983, Quali started the recovery of amaranth in the Tehuacán Valley region. They asked the national research center for amaranth seeds and received 12 varieties to test in their region. From these they selected Amaranthus hypochondriacus, not for its yield, but for its drought resistance. Since 1984, Quali has selected out seed from farmers’ harvests and redistributed seeds to farmers to plant, to spread genetic diversity. Seeds go through a rigorous quality assurance process, to ensure producers receive the highest quality seeds. Quali and the amaranth producers are ensuring, through continued cultivation, that amaranth remains well adapted to the region and that the genetic diversity of amaranth is not lost.
Indigenous peoples preserved the cultivation of amaranth in Mexico, particularly in regions surrounding the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt (chain of volcanoes that runs east-west across central-southern Mexico) such as the states of Puebla, Tlaxcala, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Morelos and more recently, Querétaro and San Luis Potosí. The Aztecs, who migrated to the Valley of Mexico in 1325 after the domestication of amaranth, reportedly received 80% of their caloric consumption from amaranth prior to Spanish conquest and the consequential introduction of rice and wheat to the Americas. Colonization by the Spanish meant the replacement of many traditional cultural, religious, and agricultural practices. Amaranth production was revived in the 1980s as the negative effects of foreign-dominated maize monoculture agriculture were coming to light, largely thanks to the work of research Alfredo Sánchez Marroquín and his 1980 book “Potencial Agroindustrial del Amaranto” (The Agroindustrial Potential of Amaranth) which awakened the interest of institutions and nonprofits to rescue and promote amaranth. Quali and its sister nonprofit Alternatives have helped restore the tradition of amaranth production and cultivation to numerous regions in Mexico.
Puente a la Salud Comunitaria (bridge to community health) is a nonprofit organization in Oaxaca focused on utilizing amaranth to advance the well-being of rural communities, solve dietary health problems, and grow food sovereignty. The organization supports the whole supply chain, promoting the production, consumption and commercialization of amaranth on a purely local level to accomplish their goals. They work with nearly 250 smallholder farmers, community promoters and entrepreneurs—the majority of whom are women—to strengthen local economies by building new markets for amaranth. To fight the double edged sword of malnutrition and obesity, two dietary health problems in the region, Puente holds workshops and classes on incorporating amaranth and other healthy options into diets. They also partner with chefs in Oaxaca to create new dishes and unique uses of amaranth.
Puente a la Salud Comunitaria’s three pillar programs – Eco-Amaranto, Social Economy, and Healthy Families – form an organic, integrated functionality. They feed into each other to create holistic solutions based on amaranth production that support the improvement of the Oaxacan families’ health, livelihoods and environments. Traceability enables these efforts to be highlighted as the distribution channels supporting amaranth production expand.
Wholechain is teaming up with Puente to demonstrate how traceability in even a regional supply chain has the potential to empower producers and consumers, building demand and export viability from the bottom up. The mobile-based blockchain technology enables secure documentation of activities, and impactful storytelling sheds light on the transformative effects of amaranth production.
One of Puente’s primary programs, Eco Amaranto, promotes agroecological farming practices in the region by providing technical assistance, appropriate technology and market access. Puente assists farmers in creating and utilizing biofertilizers in place of chemical fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides that can damage the ecological health of the soil. Puente developed and trained producers in the use of a chromatography system to diagnose and track soil health, then facilitated the creation of eight biofertilizer production units and a production unit for volcanic rock flour high in valuable minerals.
Amaranth is a fast growing plant that requires little water. These attributes allow the plant to adapt to prolonged droughts, which are increasingly more frequent due to climate change. When growers shift their production to amaranth, especially in crop rotation systems with commodity crops such as corn and beans, their practices exhibit greater resilience to both climate change and economic fluctuations in the global market. For amaranth production, Puente promotes agroecological practices which in their words, “reduce input costs, provide autonomy from corporate and government influence, [and] diversifies income opportunities.” Puente views agroecology as a socioeconomic practice that builds resilience and community autonomy.
The amaranth plant is a powerful tool for nutrition and food security, as the grain is close to a complete protein and packed with micronutrients, while the leaves are an iron rich green. Puente started as a public health-focused organization, looking to decrease birth defects and childhood malnutrition, and quickly adding the goal of increasing dietary health and nutrition to lower the occurrences of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes- the biggest killers in Oaxaca. Amaranth was quickly recognized as a promising part of the solution, for its high nutritional value and historical importance to Oaxaca. For almost two decades, Puente’s Familias Saludables (Healthy Families) program has focused on promoting food label literacy, balanced diets, and local amaranth consumption through nutrition and cooking workshops. Workshops are held in public spaces such as regional centers, community centers, schools and municipal spaces. These educational activities contribute to more diverse, secure and nutrient-rich diets for Oaxacan families. Puente’s healthy eating promotions reach an average of 10,000 people a year through trainings and events.
Puente has learned that production, processing and consumption of amaranth offers an opportunity for women to be empowered through both economic, social and nutritional leadership in their communities and beyond. Both the leadership and participation of Puente’s 24 microenterprise groups and dozens of regional workshops are predominantly women.
The history of amaranth cultivation in Mexico is rich and deep. Current production requires the preservation of traditional knowledge and practices and the integration of innovations through knowledge sharing. On both the production and consumption level, knowledge sharing is a key component of Puente’s work. Messages broadcast across local radio stations promote topics like agroecological production techniques, while workshops and microenterprise groups in the region enable nutritional, cooking and environmental knowledge sharing. Puente supports two autonomous Redes de Amaranto Regionales (regional networks of producers, transformers and consumers), the Mexteca Amaranth Network and the Central Valleys Amaranth Network. These networks gather the community around amaranth, sharing knowledge and responsibility to increase the sustainability of the food system. Puente supports these networks, remaining a non-voting guest of the assemblies to maintain community autonomy and collective decision making.regional producer networks), the Mexteca Amaranth Network and the Central Valleys Amaranth Network. These networks gather the community around amaranth, sharing knowledge and responsibility to increase the sustainability of the food system. Puente supports these networks, remaining a non-voting guest of the assemblies to maintain community autonomy and collective decision making.
Puente defines agroecology as “the act of using natural cycles and processes along with appropriate technologies to create self-sustaining agricultural systems… that will recycle nutrients through the use of organic fertilizers and diversify crops.” Agroecological practices contribute to resilient and sustainable land use practices, creating farming systems that are able to flow with natural cycles and adapt to change. Puente is supporting farmers in using agroecological practices, critical for their arid region where industrial farming techniques can negatively impact water supplies and destroy the limited soil fertility. Industrial farming such as monoculture corn production destined for the foreign market (an agricultural system largely pushed on Mexican smallholder farmers by agribusiness interests and the U.S. and Mexican governments) not only negatively impacts the environment and human health, it also captures producers in a dependency on the international market. Amaranth production allows farmers to escape the clutches of dependency and develop autonomy to ensure the sustainable use of their land and the rights to their land.
Engaging the new generations is critical to maintaining economic and cultural vitality in rural agricultural communities, especially as the average age of a small farmer in Mexico is 67 years old. By providing business and market opportunities with amaranth, Puente demonstrates to youth that they can have a viable economic future without leaving their communities, finding promise in working the land. Additionally, Puente is committed to youth leadership development in all three of their core amaranth programs. By explicitly recruiting and giving leadership roles to youths on regional committees, in outreach programs like summer camps and fairs, they are entrusting the next generation of agrobiodiversity leaders through the production and promotion of amaranth.
Puente’s Economía Social (Social Economy) program was created to provide producers and entrepreneurs with training and market support to facilitate economic opportunities with amaranth. Producer families and community members can organize into microenterprises to create and sell value-added amaranth products such as savory snacks, tostadas, flour, cereal, cookies and alegría snack bars. Selling happens between two regional networks of amaranth, with greater access to technology and markets. With Puente’s support and strategy, 24 transformer groups elaborate amaranth into over 150 different food products to sell at regional sales centers in Etla and Tlaxiaco as well as at fairs, markets, or local natural-foods stories.
In addition to the promotion of non-chemical, holistic agricultural techniques, Puente’s Eco Amaranto program focuses on seed guardianship and biodiversity preservation. Groundswell Foundation is supporting Puente in a three-year project focused on seed conservation. The project’s goal is to improve the quality of seeds producers use through trainings focused on seed selection and the creation of a manual and catalog of seeds. This will allow producers to continue to refine resilient amaranth varieties adapted to their region.
First cultivated in Mexico over 7,000 years ago, Amaranth was not only a staple food crop for indigenous communities, it also played a vital role in Aztec (or Mexica) religious practices. 15 to 20 thousand tons of amaranth were produced by the Mexicas each year. They prepared it into a paste with corn, honey and chilies called “atoll.” Under Spanish colonization and rule, amaranth virtually disappeared from the Mexican diet, leaving only about 5,000 tons of amaranth produced yearly in Mexico today. Revitalizing amaranth cultivation and consumption has helped protect and value indigenous and local cultures and customs, such as the Oaxacan cooperative model known as Usos y Costumbres played out in the regional producer networks. Reclaiming amaranth and traditional agricultural practices allows Oaxacan communities to see the relevance and importance of their indigenous customs in the modern day, celebrating their cultural heritage and sovereignty.