Thanks to Martha Pskowski and Yale e360 for this:
A nitrogen-fixing maize grown in an indigenous region of Mexico has the ability to fertilize itself, recent research shows. Now, as a global company and U.S. scientists work to replicate this trait in other corn varieties, will the villages where the maize originated share fairly in the profits?
In a 1979 visit to Totontepec, a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, naturalist Thomas Boone Hallberg marveled at the local maize. The plants grew nearly 20 feet high in nutrient-poor soil, even though local farmers did not apply any fertilizer.
The maize had aerial roots that grew a mucous-like gel just before harvest season. It seemed impossible, but Hallberg wondered if the maize was fixing its own nitrogen: extracting it from the air and somehow making it usable for the plant. He had visited countless towns since moving to Oaxaca in the 1950s, but what he saw in Totontepec stuck with him.
In 1992, Hallberg returned with a group of Mexican scientists. The maize, known as olotón, was almost ready for harvest and its aerial roots glistened with gel. Ronald Ferrera-Cerrato, a microbiologist, took samples back to his lab outside Mexico City to test the bacteria in the gel. His preliminary results, published in a 1996 report, showed that the maize received nitrogen from the air, through its aerial roots, meaning that it effectively had the ability to fertilize itself.
At the time, scientists around the world were puzzling over similar questions. In a 1996 paper in Plant and Soil, microbiologist Eric Triplett, then at the University of Wisconsin, described the possibility of corn plants that fix nitrogen as “the ‘holy grail’ of nitrogen fixation research” because of the potential to reduce fertilizer demand.
It took more than two decades before the suspicions about Totontepec’s maize were confirmed in a peer-reviewed journal. Last August, researchers from the University of California, Davis, the University of Wisconsin, and Mars Inc. — the global food and candy conglomerate — published the results of a 10-year study in PLOS Biology, describing how bacteria that thrive in the low-oxygen environment of the maize’s mucus pull nitrogen from the air and feed it to the plant.
The scientists provided few details about where the maize came from, or the circumstances of what UC Davis touted as the researchers’ “remarkable discovery,” saying only that the corn was from an isolated village in Oaxaca. A Mars subsidiary called BioN2 had signed an agreement with a village to share financial benefits from the maize’s commercialization. That village turned out to be Totontepec, a Mixe indigenous community in the mountains of eastern Oaxaca.
Scientists will likely spend years determining if a commercial application of the maize is viable. But if the trait is successfully bred into commercial corn, farmers could substantially reduce their use of synthetic fertilizer. Farmers spend more than $3 billion a year on corn fertilizer in the United States alone. Nitrogen fertilizer is also a leading cause of water pollution, dead zones in rivers and lakes, and an important source of greenhouse gases.
The UC Davis/Mars researchers received a certificate of compliance with the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement aimed at compensating indigenous communities for their biological resources and traditional knowledge. Still, the situation surrounding Totontepec’s maize raises complex questions about how indigenous communities equitably benefit when research scientists and multinational corporations commercialize local crops and plants. Should Totontepec’s maize turn out to be a miracle, self-fertilizing crop whose genetic traits can be replicated worldwide, will the community’s Mixe people receive a significant long-term share of profits, which could potentially number in the millions of dollars? How does Nagoya ensure that the rights and interests of small indigenous communities are safeguarded when their leaders negotiate complex deals with international lawyers and executives? And, not least, when a valuable plant is found throughout a region, is it fair for a single village such as Totontepec to reap financial benefits from its maize while neighboring communities with identical or similar maize receive nothing?…
Read the whole story here.