On “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg,” Howard–Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars, Incorporated, describes how uncommon collaborations between communities and organizations led to a monumental discovery in maize plant breeding. “When I saw this unusual maize over 38 years ago in a village outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, the maize did something so that everyone there didn’t apply fertilizer,” describes Shapiro. “It grew without nitrogen. It took a long time to find anyone who would listen, even the first few people I talked to dismissed it out of hand.”
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However, an uncommon collaboration between the community and organizations such as Mars, Incorporated; University of California, Davis; and the University of Wisconsin expanded Shapiro’s possibilities with the maize, potentially setting the scene to reduce the global production of nitrogen. “These organizations do it because they have the ability to help make a solution to a problem,” says Shapiro. “They’re all saying ‘how can we join and help you?’”
In addition to the organizations, “the authorities and the community in this village were an integral part of this research project. The materials were accessed and utilized under an access and benefit sharing agreement with the community” says Shapiro. “We had to go and make sure the community participated in the benefits of commercialization.”
Similar uncommon collaborations in 2011 and 2012 helped the University of California, Davis; Mars, Incorporated; and their global partners establish the African Plant Breeding Academy in Nairobi, to fix the problem of malnutrition in Africa. “Why haven’t we fixed this? Why haven’t plant breeders gone after nutrition as their driving force?” says Shapiro. “Its because yield has been the driving force.” The academy trains new plant breeders in Africa to prioritize nutrition, transforming African plants and trees into more reliable sources of nutritious food.
According to Shapiro, Mars, Incorporated and its partnering organizations had unique opportunities to work with communities the right way—empowering and incorporating them in uncommon collaborations. “So if we were in the position to do the right thing, I guess the question becomes ‘why wouldn’t you do the right thing?’” says Shapiro.
Photo courtesy of Roman Cho Photography.