Corn, along with potatoes, has always been the staple food of the native people of northeastern Argentina. With their diversity of shapes and colors, cobs of Andean corn offer such a range of different characteristics that the variation in the composition of the kernels is clear. There is a specific use for every type of corn. The indigenous communities, who over time have preserved their traditional corn-based foods and drinks, play a key role in preserving a large number of varieties of this grain.
Tradition and modernity
Corn spread to the rest of the planet following the Old World’s discovery of the New World, and today it is one of the three key grains that help to meet humanity’s food needs. But the genetic characteristics of modern corn are different to those of the American continent’s heirloom and native varieties.
The selection and refinement processes to which humans have subjected corn have led to an increase in yield and a uniformity of output. Modern technology is very proud of this result. Technological developments, however, have also reduced the natural diversity of corn and its different flavors, colors and traditional uses. This diversity is being irretrievably lost.
In Argentina, the abandonment of the countryside, the transculturation of food and the switch to hybrid corn are the main reasons behind the disappearance of many varieties. In the northeast of the country, however, a number of the ancient varieties still survive, representing an immense genetic and cultural wealth.
Varieties of corn native to Argentina include the capia, with large, white, floury kernels; the blanco criollo, with large, flat, vitreous kernels; amarillo socorro, with flattened, rounded, semi-vitreous, yellow kernels, sometimes streaked with white stripes; amarillo de ocho, with a cob made up of eight rows of rounded and slightly hooked kernels, floury in the middle and hard on the outside; and chulpi, with large sweet kernels, long, narrow and wrinkled when mature. These are just a few of the many existing varieties of corn: 51 have been classified in total.
A genetic and cultural heritage
The plots of land on which these corn varieties are grown are small, with most production for home consumption. To cultivate the land, most farmers use traditional tools, like the arado de palo, a wooden plow dragged by mules or horses, and other simple, sustainable cultivation techniques, keeping the use of modern chemical treatments to a minimum.
Traditional corn varieties are sown by hand. The rest of the cultivation and harvesting process is also manual. Before being stored, the corn kernels are dried on the cob in the open air, and then shelled. In the case of capia, the skin of the kernels is removed. Corn has many culinary uses, from the traditional locro to mote to beverages such as chicha, all preparations that have been made for centuries.
Unfortunately the biggest obstacles to the survival of heirloom corn are linked to the production itself, particularly young people’s loss of traditional knowledge. Other factors include the changing food habits of consumers, which lead young generations, influenced by foreign cultures, to undervalue the wealth and food biodiversity represented by native corn varieties.
The Agriculture Faculty of the University of Buenos Aires, together with Slow Food, has carried out important work to promote native corn varieties and other traditional products. Nonetheless, every day we must face the challenge of preserving the production and consumption of these ancient varieties.
Our corn is the embodiment of biodiversity that deserves to be protected, not just for the genetic wealth it contains, but also because it keeps alive local traditions and the cultural heritage of the people who cultivate it.
Zea mays is the crop on which modern technology has made the most progress, increasing its productivity to absurd levels and using it to produce everything from animal feed to sodas to diapers. But dozens of traditional varieties still exist alongside the modern corn, those that fed the “people of the corn,” the descendants of the ancient Mayans.
This article was originally published in the Slow Food Almanac.
Check out our Discover Biodiversity exhibition at Expo, where we explore the theme further.