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How Reconnecting Tortillas with Heirloom Maize Can Boost Personal, Planetary Health

New Book Co-Authored by EarthShift Global’s Mariana Ortega Ramirez shares insights from multi-year research into agricultural practices and nutrition of Mexico’s “strategic food”

The tortilla is a staple of Mexican cuisine, used in dozens of everyday food items. But most tortillas sold in Mexico today have diminishing connections to the traditional corn crops and agricultural techniques used in the original versions developed some 2,500 years ago, which makes them not only much less nutritious but also problematic from environmental and social perspectives.

For the past five years, EarthShift Global sustainability analyst Mariana Ortega Ramirez has worked with the nonprofit collective Alianza por Nuestra Tortilla (Alliance for Our Tortilla), a diverse interdisciplinary group of organizations from Mexico’s urban and rural communities focused on the “current problems of the corn-tortilla chain, and on what we wanted to promote: agroecological production and healthy eating,” explains Mariana.

Insight gained in a multi-year series of workshops, interviews, and research efforts has just been published in Del Maíz a La Tortilla: Lo Que Sabemos Desde La Tierra Hasta La Mesa (From Corn to Tortilla: What We Know from the Land to the Table), a richly presented book co-authored by Mariana that offers “an invitation for us, as a society, as a government, and as consumers, to question the origin of the products that feed us and to choose and demand access to a good tortilla, the tortilla we deserve.” The book is available as a free PDF

“We used a mainly qualitative approach, conducting semi-structured interviews and drawing on the ‘follow-the-things’ ethnographic methodology,” explains Mariana. By focusing on the material goods of corn and tortillas, the study provides new perspective on both geography and consumption.

The tortilla is a powerful rallying point for Mexican society because “we are a people of maize, practically everyone eats tortillas. It is our strategic food,” notes Mariana. “Cati Marielle, a comrade in the Alliance and one of the book’s co-authors, often reflects in her speeches that one can see the situation of our country in the tortilla we put on our table. It can tell us about what happened in public life before, which led us to where we are today, and where we’re heading.”

Today’s situation poses a pair of problems. On the one hand, research into the modernization of Mexican popular cuisine and the prevalence of non-communicable diseases has shown that some mass-produced tortillas have become the type of highly processed food that results for many people in the paradoxical combination of simultaneous obesity and malnutrition, as well as diabetes, cancer, and other diseases that affect both personal and community resilience. At the same time, agricultural practices in the supply chain “are devastating our soils, our agrobiodiversity, and in general the ecosystems that allow life,” says Mariana.

The Alliance proposes that both aspects could be addressed at some level by producing everyday tortillas with corn grown using the agroecological milpa technique (where maize, beans, squash, and other edible and medicinal crops are co-cultivated), and processed into dough using traditional nixtamalization. This would make the resulting tortillas more nutritious and free of agrotoxins and unnecessary additives, while also reducing negative impacts on biodiversity and human and ecosystem health.

Reclaiming milpa and nixtamalization is also a way of implicitly acknowledging the centuries of work, mostly done by women in peasant and native communities, to protect and maintain seeds, know-how, and flavor through the reproduction and diversification of corn.

Mariana points out that corn crop diversity in Mexico and Latin America has eroded significantly due to agriculture industrialization, but adds, “luckily, we still have many landrace varieties we can protect. These are locally adapted varieties with a diverse genetic pool that has been adjusting to a changing climate ever since maize started to be domesticated. Unlike genetically modified (GM) and hybrid corn, heirloom varieties can grow under many conditions: high altitudes, sea level, rich and poor soils on plains or hills. Preserving them and reclaiming the milpa production system is a way of securing food sovereignty; it’s part of how Mexico can face climate change.”

For over 10 years, citizen groups in Mexico have pursued a class-action suit to fight GM corn planting, and members of the Alianza and co-authors of the book have worked to raise awareness about the public health concerns of consuming tortillas and other preparations containing genetically modified corn and its associated herbicide, glyphosate. Last month, activists leading the class action received the Pax Natura Foundation award for their “courage and wisdom to resist the ravages of industrial agriculture that degrades the land, destroys biodiversity and encourages increased carbon emissions.”

“Ancestral diets and agroecology are key to ensuring our health and that of the Earth we inhabit in the short, medium, and long term,” says Mariana. “The book deals with these issues; we wanted to create a tool for communication and dissemination to a broad audience of everything we’ve learned as a group.”