Corn is one of the most basic crops and perhaps one of the most well-known and significant cultural symbols in Guatemala. From the ancient Mayans who considered it a sacred element, to the subsequent generations of Guatemalans who have depended on this staple crop for substance and survival, corn still forms a central part of the Guatemalan people’s diet. Whether in the form of tortillas, battered corn sausages, pudding corn, soups or even grounded in tamales, corn provides 50% of Guatemalans’ nutritional needs and is a vital source of carbohydrates and proteins. In order for corn to continue to be a source of life, nourishment and growth in Guatemala, it is vital to address a serious nutritional issue which primarily affects rural communities: the aflatoxins and fumonisins found in corn.
Aflatoxins are some of the most carcinogenic and dangerous chemical compounds known to man. They are generated by distinct types of fungi and molds which arise from crops that are exposed to severe droughts or very humid conditions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the prolonged consumption of foods contaminated by type B1 aflatoxins can lead to serious health problems such as liver and esophagus cancer, heart lesions, pulmonary edemas or stunted growth in children, especially those under the age of five, as it affects the absorption of key vitamins and minerals. Additionally, if any of the contaminated foods is affected by fumonisins the carcinogenic agents can become even deadlier. The WHO guidelines recommend avoiding eating foods which contain 20 ppb (parts per billion) of aflatoxins and 6ppm (parts per million) in the case of fumonisins.
A study conducted in 2013 by researcher Olga Torres found that 90% of the samples analyzed contained type B1 aflatoxins and 70% of homes with children under two years old were consuming corn contaminated by toxins.
Joint Efforts in San Marcos
A couple years ago, the Guatemalan Government launched a programme at the national level to monitor the quality of its corn crops. Nevertheless, this programme failed to reach local markets, particularly the shops of rural villages which often sold “maíz de primera, maíz picado y maíz podrido” (Best Corn, Chopped Corn, Rotten Corn). In almost every community there are people who are forced to buy “mulco” or rotten corn as they often have very little resources and can only afford to buy this particular type of low grade corn.
Contributing to the efforts of the Guatemalan Government to reduce the consumption of corn contaminated with aflatoxins, the Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG Fund) implemented the “Food and nutrition security of the department of San Marcos” joint programme in the country’s southwest region. Within the framework of the programme, the UN specialized food agencies--the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP)--conducted several initiatives aimed at reducing the presence of aflatoxins in corn for food consumption in over 40 different rural communities and within four different Guatemalan municipalities: Tacaná, Tajumulco, San Lorenzo and Esquipulas Palo Gordo.
The joint programme’s initiatives and activities included the diffusion, awareness raising and training of technical and specialized personnel and members of the community on aflatoxins and fumonisins and their health effects on humans and livestock. Likewise, the UN Agencies have developed monitoring systems to identify and analyze the production and consumption of corn by families participating in the programme. These monitoring systems have helped to better detect the presence of corn crops containing toxins, allowing for the implementation of best practices or identification of new corn providers.
In its third year, the programme has begun to show some promising results. The latest monitoring reports show that the level of aflatoxins has been almost halved from the initial 11% levels to 6.71%. Likewise, the levels of fumonisins present in corn consumed by the participant families has not surpassed the 1% level. These reductions in aflatoxins are directly correlated to the interventions and initiatives of the joint programme, including workshops and trainings for the 1,500 participating families on how to select the healthiest corn crops from their harvests. Moreover, the results from the last evaluations have revealed an increase in the variety of diets consumed by participant families and an increase in income of about 13% on average.
Many people who have benefited from the programme explained that they were not aware of the harm which low grade corn had on their health, the health of their families and their livestock. Now, little by little, they have changed their eating habits including their consumption of low grade corn and have adopted a series of quality criteria when buying and consuming corn.
The final objective of the initiatives against aflatoxins and fumonisins found in Guatemalan corn is to contribute to the food security and nutritional wellbeing of families, especially of women and young children under the age of 2 years old. By sharing and strengthening knowledge, promoting self-empowerment and participation of local leaders, and strengthening of public institutions at the local, departmental and national level, the overall objective towards eradicating chronic malnutrition and ensuring the wellbeing of young children throughout Guatemala is a bit closer to reality.
English translation by Raul Rios.