Seeds for Change: The Need for Stress Tolerant Crops in Central America

A story by Guest Blogger Kay Watt

Rice steamed in the husk and left to dry, then threshed is one of the subtle specialties of the region.



In Panama the rainy season lasts most of the year.  Rivers flood, runoff pours down hillsides, and the red clay roads become impassable. Horses strain forward against thick mud rising almost to their chests, soaked riders urging them on.  The village of Limón, 300 people and a two-room school house, both depend on and fight against the rain.  The small town grew up near a river that used to serve as transportation to the coast.  Although the area was once pure rainforest, almost none of it remains.  It has been transformed into cattle pasture, slash-and-burn farming fields, and shade-grown coffee farms.  The vast majority of families run subsistence farms and build their own houses out of wood and palm leaves.  There is a government-run agricultural resource outpost, but it is located over 2 hours away and the staff rarely visits.


I lived in Limón as a Peace Corps volunteer for over a year, getting to know the families and learning from their many kindnesses.  It is impossible in Limón, and most other rural Panamanian towns, to visit someone and leave without having been stuffed full of banana, or fried plantain, or a little rice, all accompanied with a very thick black cup of robusto rich with sugar. In turn, I taught in the school and ran seminars on organic composting, coffee plantation diseases, and seed saving.


One of the first things I noticed was although everyone raised their own food from chicken to pigs, to rice and corn, there were few vegetables.  To buy tomatoes or cucumbers or carrots you would have to travel two hours in the chiva, a modified and jam-packed pickup truck that served as local public transportation, to a very small shop that carried them.  They were imported from several provinces away, where farmers had access to consistent running water, electricity, and government assistance.  Most meals were pure starches: rice, manioc, plantain, over and over again.  Occasionally a fruit tree would be in season, and there would be a glut of starfruit or mariñon (the fruit that produces the cashew nut), but it never lasted long.  Although the area was lush with mango trees, none of them ever bore fruit.  Several of the older men would reminisce about the days when there was more forest and they could hunt the deer and tapir that lived there.

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I was sure I had all the answers for the town where I would work.  After living there I saw how easily the crops could be lost to fungi, disease, and flooding during the wet season. How the soil, already marginal at best, could barely support most of what was grown. How all the forest had been cut down in an attempt to continue to provide enough food. How crops that could enhance diets were incredibly fragile in the nutrient-deficient and harsh environment. While my composting lessons could improve soil health, they could do little remedy the complete lack of food security.  I could not change the climate, the availability of water, or the pests plaguing the crops.  The only variable that could be changed was the genetic makeup of the crops themselves.


Marginal arable lands such as the rainforest can be transformed into hale and healthy foundations for farming–the Amazonian human-made terra preta is proof of this. But in a world facing severe and sudden climate change, the families of Limón need more immediate help than increasing soil health over the course of several years.  Even with healthy soils, the town would still face severe yearly flooding.  Crops capable of resisting drought, flood, and disease could provide immediate nutritional relief and added food security.  By focusing on intensively farming and bolstering soil on key desirable acres, the rest of the forest could be left to grow once again.

  • The long journey to town.  Most of the rainforest has been cut down in favor of cattle pasture.
  • Spending time making a seed-sprouting table, or semillero, in the school garden. The students grew corn, beans, tomatoes, and cucumber.

Guest blogger Kay Watt is currently an undergraduate earning her second degree, in Plant Biotechnology, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work currently involves exploring arsenic sequestration in Arabidopsis plants through genetic manipulation. She served in Peace Corps Panama starting in 2009 as a Sustainable Agricultural Systems Volunteer, where she learned the finer points of hand-harvesting rice and playing competitive dominoes.

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"Stress tolerant crops" are none other than vile GMO's, which the world does not need! Why are scientists so prone to find justifications when they mess with "Sacred Nature" with the excuse to end "World hunger"?

You said.. " I could not change the climate, the availability of water, or the pests plaguing the crops. The only variable that could be changed was the genetic makeup of the crops themselves."

The climate can be changed and indeed has been manipulated for many years by conventional means of deforrestation etc and via Geoengineering and H.A.R.R.P.

Well managed organic farms can be both flood and drought resistant. Pests can be controlled by introducing natural predators and many other techniques.

When you say... "While my composting lessons could improve soil health, they could do little remedy the complete lack of food security"

I can only think that fear has clouded your judgement and you have failed to seek alternatives that are not instant.
The genetic makeup of the crops need to be left as it is. Or perhaps you think it's a good idea to allow corporations to copyright our food supply?

I'm also left wondering if you've recently purchased shares in Monsanto and Dupont.

By HARRP Geoengineering (not verified) on 06 Oct 2012 #permalink

I didn't see any thing like our Wild rice? Why can't that be used w/all of the water they live with? Both as a cash crop $$!! Plus as a very hearty traditional sustinance?? Too warm there?

By Steven A. Learn (not verified) on 25 Oct 2012 #permalink

Biotech seeds, GMO, just go ahead, mess up nature even more!! One day the earth will vomit it all up and no one will grow food of any kind again!!

What this article did not tell us, is the following:
Once GMO crops are introduced, there is hardly any way of preventing contamination.
One GMO plant is destroying the almost sacred ecosystem.
GMO crops are patented which means you cannot harvest the seed. You HAVE TO BUY NEW SEED. In third world countries, like the South Americas, people hardly have money to buy new seed every season.
The health risks linked to GMO make this product unsuitable for human or animal consumption.
Introducing GMO is a very cruel way to introduce total control over people by big agri business.
Most of Europe has banned GMO.
It will not solve the problem because the solution is creating more problems.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 02 Nov 2012 #permalink

Check out ”The Nature of Life” by Anton Glotser, this book has some interesting ideas about the environment and how humans affect it.

Not all agricultural engineers are evil. If GMOs will save millions of lives each year, and allow those poor to be healthy and lead productive lives, maybe they are worth considering.

Dear Kay, enjoy your time with the Peace Corps. Having said that, learn from your hosts what has worked for them, and not tell them what they need. It is not GMO, and their only salvation from NOT being introduced to modified seeds, is the fact that they don't matter to the real world of corporations. Sorry.

If you think that the forests could re-grow, then where would those cattle graze, currently on de-forested lands? Stress tolerant seeds do not deal with flooding, and you are not going to change Mother Nature's habits.

Those seeds present their own problems, by the way.

Keep learning from the world Kim, we all need that to survive. Have fun.

By skeeteril (not verified) on 13 Nov 2012 #permalink

GMO's and they companies that make them are the only concerned with profits for their shareholders. Any scientist that is not working for biotech will agree that the environmental and health implications are dreadful and these products are just one more thing that will contribute to the downfall of humanity.

Hi Kay,
Your article reveals a superficial understanding of living in the tropical rainforest. Living in a sustainable manner can be done as a naked primitive, but this is NOT what the people of Central America wish; they too would like to join the party.
I have been coming to/living in a rustic part of Costa Rica for over 30 years and have observed the progression from beans to corn to rice to cattle and now to plantations of palm oil (inside the Reserva Forestal Golfo Dulce !!!). These are local people, plus many immigrants, just trying to support their (ever increasing families). But guess what - family sizes are decreasing; why no mention of the demand side of the equation ? (I suspect your education includes nothing of accounting or economics). You do understand that more people require more food, so the jungle will continue be cut and burned ? Simple really.
Your solution is to provide GM seed ? Your ignorance is clear, there are solutions but GM seed is about the worst in terms of sustainability and environmental impact. I hope your tour is done soon and you return to the US, appreciate that a question can be posed such that there is no (acceptable) answer.
Bill from Bahia Drake

By Bill Adams (not verified) on 29 Dec 2012 #permalink

The author of this story===== KAY WATT works for the Prakash Lab, Department of Bioengineering, Stanford University. This is just PR for GMO a worthless story about the ignorance of young naive person in another country that they didn't understand and their arrogance that we could "feed the world" by taking the ability of the farmer to survive and handing that to a larger entity

The only way to feed the world is through knowledge, education, and birth control.

Teach a man to fish, and feed the world. Sell a man a fish, and when he runs out money it is your door he will kick in when he is starving ;)

Let us not cook up stories against GMOs. When you put the experimental facts in a way people can understand, they do make the right choice. Let scientists unite to use recombinant DNA technology for a secure future. Let them refuse to be utilized by the multinational seed companies. By the way, what about preventing wastage of foods? According to estimates of FAO, it could feed 500 million, without encroaching on natural resources. Let us kickstart a campaign in this direction.

By SK Chakraborty (not verified) on 25 Jan 2013 #permalink

I disagree. I am a trained agronomist. I have visited and examined crop and livestock production system across the globe. The developing world, and much of the developed world, are way way behind their potential to produce food, because they lack modern technology, expertise and most of all, capital. GM technology is going to happen, because it makes crop production simpler and less costly. A grower in the developed world does not have a lot of money to spend on crop protection products. He might be able to afford GM seeds, however, particularly where their development has been sponsored by his own government. Much of GM technology is being handed out for free.

So, in search of a solution the genetic diversity of crops is destroyed for clones which have the same genetic make-up, basically no buffer for any biological attack? There are other motions to be taken towards sustainability and this will not solve the problems in the long term, only enhance them. I hope this project does not encourage monocropping also because that does nothing but deplete the soil. How much were global economic factors considered? I am suspicious of this article.

By Valerie Tesche… (not verified) on 09 Mar 2013 #permalink

If GMO's are so good, why are they banned in many countries....except the US?