Team C: An Exploration of Traditional Farming Culture as Practices Promoting Resiliency in the Face of Global Change: The Case of Maize

Note/disclaimer: This webpage is for instructional purposes only and the scenario described below is fictional.

This page was developed as a hypothetical report of findings for search for alternative solutions to food security and sustainable agriculture written on behalf of The FAO Organization of the United Nations

UW-Madison Task Force Members:
   Alicia Barceinas Cruz, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
  Roofia Beg, College of Letters and Sciences, Biology and Global Health 

Scenario | Abstract | Introduction | Methods | Results | Limitations | Conclusions | Citations | Acknowledgements | About the Authors


We are consultants working for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in its regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean in its search for alternatives to achieve Goal #2 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture


Global climate change will push agricultural system to function under increased biotic and abiotic stresses that may lower crop yields. Since the global population is expected to increase, global warming presents an inexorable future with more people to feed by more vulnerable agricultural systems. Therefore, understanding how to build resiliency in agricultural systems becomes ever more relevant. Through meta-analysis techniques, we review 13 case studies of traditional maize farming systems in Latin America and summarize the strategies employed by traditional farmers that create and improve resiliency. Our analysis suggests that traditional farmers maintain genetic and species diversity as an insurance policy and that oftentimes they prefer to grow their crops from locally selected seeds rather than genetically enhanced commercial seeds. Increased diversity creates redundancies in the functions of agricultural systems, thereby allowing the system to recover from disturbances more easily. Traditional farmers in Latin America also maintain social networks of exchange of seeds and farming knowledge that could also improve resiliency through the availability of resources in the network in case of low yields or crop failure.


Environmental global changes will push agricultural system to function under increased biotic and abiotic stresses (Lin 2011). The most recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states with high confidence that anthropogenic global warming is currently increasing at 0.2ºC per decade and that is likely to reach 1.5ºC between 2030 and 2052 (Allen et al. 2018), which is likely to result in extreme temperatures, increase in frequency and intensity of heavy rains and droughts in several regions of the planet (Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2018). While the demand for water irrigation for crops is expected to increase in some areas, other will suffer of floods (Altieri et al. 2015; Altieri and Nicholls 2017). At the same time, increased temperatures are projected to change insects populations dynamics, leading to a higher incidence of pests and pathogens in crops (Lin 2011; Altieri et al. 2015; Altieri and Nicholls 2017)

Figure 1. Risks associated with Reasons of Concern (RFCs) with increases of global temperature. Source: IPCC Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5º C

Yields of crops negatively respond to these changes. It is estimated that global maize and wheat production already declined by 3.8 and 5.5%, respectively, between 1980 and 2008 (Lobell and Field 2007; Lobell et al. 2011; Altieri et al. 2015). This is worrisome because climate change is leading to lower crop yields, but human population is increasing, resulting in a future with more people to feed by more vulnerable agricultural systems. In part, the increasing vulnerability of agricultural systems to climate change is due to the global expansion of monocultures, which lead to narrowing diversity of crops growth with eroded genetic diversity that cannot easily respond to environmental changes (Brush 1995; Lin 2011; Altieri et al. 2015). According to Altieri et al. (2015), 80% of the world’s arable land is increasingly being planted with monocultures of corn, soybean, wheat, rice, and others.

Because global climate change and global food security are “inextricably linked” (Altieri et al 2015.), solutions to the vulnerability of agricultural systems of the world are urgently needed. One solution proposed to the problem in the past decades is to preserve crop germplasm resources in seed banks, in which the diversity of global varieties developed around the world are stored and could be eventually used in case of need (Brush 1995;Gepts 2006). Even though this approach could provide a temporary relief to issues of food security, it ignores the core of the problem by failing to improve the capacity of agricultural systems to cope and adapt to environmental changes and biotic stresses resulting from inevitable increases in global temperatures. Moreover, ex-situ conservation of crop germplasm is considered “politically troublesome” for some because such efforts accumulate genetic resources in developed countries without acknowledging the contribution of farmers in the developing world (Brush 1995; ;Gepts 2006) and the cultural and social context in which genetic crop resources were and continue to be developed today (Bellon et al 2018). Another proposed solutions is to look at the traditional farming practices in the developing world, where farmers have inherited and/or developed situated knowledges (see Haraway 1988) and practices that reflect a deep understanding of how to deal with a highly variable, non-equilibrium local ecological processes (Berkes et al. 2000; Toledo and Barrera-Bassols 2008; Lin 2011; Moreno-Calles et. al 2013;Altieri et al.; Altieri and Nicholls 2017)

Since traditional farming is touted as a model of climate-smart, resilient agriculture (Altieri and Nicholls 2017), it becomes ever more relevant to address the following questions: What strategies do traditional small scale agriculture developed to cope with climate variability? What can we learn from those strategies to create resilient agricultural systems? We review the potential of traditional maize farming systems in Latin America as systems that enhance the resiliency of agriculture to deal with climate change. Understanding resiliency as “the capacity to recover after disturbance, absorb stress, internalize it, and transcend it” (Berkes et al. 2000), we analyze case studies and summarize the strategies that create and improve resiliency. We also identify the general trends of farming practices for maize varieties in Latin America. Finally, we explore the potential of these systems to contribute to the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero hungry, and Goal 13: Climate Action

Figure 2.UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.


In order to address our questions, we performed a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed case-studies that examine traditional maize farming practices in Central and South America. Meta-analysis techniques combine the validity of in-depth case-studies with generalizability because we are able to analyze the same—or similar—phenomenon across case-studies, and thus, we effectively analyze more data (Schultz and Whitney 2005). We compiled a list of peer-reviewed case studies by using the following search criteria in Web of Knowledge: “traditional”, “agriculture”, “maize”, “landrace”, “management”.

Based on the framework proposed by Altieri et al (2015) to study vulnerability and resiliency of agricultural systems, we read the case-studies looking for social and ecological traits of the system that promoted vulnerability or resiliency of the system (Fig. 3). Within the ecological traits, we looked for strategies to manage inter-annual climate variability and spread of diseases and insect ‘pests’ such as crop rotation, diversity of species in crop fields, use of different maize varieties adapted to resist stresses, and other strategies to manage pests. Among the social aspects, we looked at the presence of social ties and networks that may allow traditional farmers recover from potential crop failure due to extreme climate events.

Figure 3. Socio-ecological features that determine the vulnerability and reactive capacity of farmers to enhance the resiliency of their systems and communities. Source: Altieri et al (2015)


We analyzed 13 cases describing traditional farming practices in Mexico, Guatemala, and Bolivia. In these cases, we identified two main mechanisms driving resiliency: the use and maintenance of high genetic and species diversity in traditional maize fields and the presence of social networks for the exchange of locally selected and adapted seeds. Cultural aspects reinforce these mechanisms.

1. Diversity of varieties and species in maize fields

Our analysis suggests that traditional farmers maintain genetic and species diversity in their fields as an “insurance policy” against inter-annual climate variability. Increased diversity creates “redundancies” in the functions of agricultural systems, thereby allowing the system to recover from disturbances more easily. One clear indicator of the maintenance of high genetic diversity in maize fields is that in Latin America, studies have found 708 varieties of maize (Conabio 2017). In Bolivia’s high valley Tarata-Arbieto, Zimmerer (2014) finds 10 types of maize varieties cultivated and consumed; and Bellon (1991) and Bellon (1995) find fifteen maize varieties named by farmers that belong to six different maize races in ejido1 communities in Chiapas, México (also see map in Fig. 4). This diversity derives from the need to have seeds that can withstand multiple conditions and produce consistent yields. In these cases, the crop germplasm stock represents one of the biggest strengths of each community.

Figure 4. Distribution of native varieties of maize and number of landraces registered in cells of ~625 square kilometers. Source: National commission for the knowledge and use of biodiversity in Mexico

Crop germplasm, moreover, is important in agricultural systems that need to evolve and adapt to changing biological and climatic factors. In the cases we reviewed, traditional farmers use their experiential knowledge to assess climate conditions of the year (e.g. whether the rains will come early or late in the season or if they expect to have droughts) and plant the seeds of the varieties that they know will withstand the expected conditions (Altieri and Trujillo 1987; Bellon 1991; Bellon 1995; Perales et al. 2005; Bellon et al. 2011; Rogé et al. 2014). In times of high uncertainty, traditional farmers even combine different varieties in the same fields, despite knowing that this could result in lower yields, as a way to reduce the risk of crop failure. Moreover, traditional small holder farmers (campesinos) intentionally grow different varieties of bean and squash and let other ‘wild’ plants—considered weeds in modern agricultural systems—grow in their fields. These are consumed by campesinos to complement their diets.

Seed management is an integral part of traditional practices that, in line with other authors (e.g. Altieri and Trujillo 1987; Bellon 1991; Bellon 1995; Zimmerer 2014), we consider as effective strategies for in situ conservation of germplasm. In a traditional farming community in Guatemala, Johannessen (1982) finds that even though farmers have little knowledge of genetic processes, they select for maize varieties by the color of kernels following their ancestors’ practice of recognizing the importance of corn by its color. Much of the improvement of maize is done empirically by campesinos who pay close attention to the changing climate and environmental conditions and mix local varieties in such a way that results in offspring potentially more fit to those expected conditions.

In Mexico, campesinos are an integral part of the solution for food security and maintaining maize diversity because, using native varieties of maize for crops, they have adapted to varying environmental conditions and improved yield numbers. Traditional campesino agriculture has the capacity to feed 54.7 million people in Mexico, including the rural population in which the agriculture is farmed ( Bellon et al. 2018) (Fig. 5). Moreover, the use of native maize varieties positively contributes to maize evolution through large population size and high genetic diversity. These genetic changes are useful in the future where environmental conditions are not known due to climatic effects.

Figure 5. Comparison of yield classes (tons per hectare), mostly representing campesino agriculture of the rural population (bar 1) along with the estimated rural population that could be fed without a surplus (bar 2) and with (bar 3). The difference in bar 1 and bar 2 correspond to the size of the local population that could not be fed through local production but due to municipalities that produce an excess, this would be offset and estimated to feed more people than the local population (bar 3). Source: Bellon et al (2018)

Seed banks cannot serve as a substitute for campesino agriculture as the seeds collected are not evolving and represent genetic diversity only at the time that they are collected. Therefore, maintaining and creating genetic change relies on more traditional agricultural sources. This implies that the design of agricultural policies and incentives that better understand and integrate campesino agriculture and its potential for conservation are needed.

2. Social networks and knowledge systems

The social networks created by the exchange of seeds between members of a family, a community or other larger groups are also an important part of the traditional maize crop system. In many of the cases we analyzed, when a member of the community begins planting for the first time, they would get the seeds as a gift from their parents or close relatives. This means the seed tends to stay in its original area minimizing dispersal. When seed is given from a new source, it complements rather than replaces the current germplasm ( Louette 1997; Bellon et al. 2018). As long as this stands, diversity can be predicted to increase.

Local seed supply along with community exchange were observed to be the main trends of maize systems in Mexico, Guatemala and Bolivia ( Johannessen 1982; Altieri and Trujillo 1987; Perales et al. 2003 ; Zimmerer 2014). In traditional maize systems in Mexico, after harvesting, campesinos select ear and kernel traits and exchange seeds with the community members, creating regional ‘ideotypes’ that can adapt to interannual varying climatic conditions. The use, knowledge and exchange of these diverse varieties contributes to social and ecological resiliency (understood as “the capacity of maize-growing households to continue to cultivate landrace diversity amid climatic variation and possible climate change impacts”) that involves food security and access (Zimmerer 2014). Small farmers often use local climate knowledge to facilitate their agriculture practices. Farmer’s analysis of their situation and ideas for transformation mirrored policy recommendations (reforestation, composting, decreasing emissions, etc.). Interestingly, farmers recognized the need for community action and mobilization in order to materialize the actions that could improve their preparedness for climate change conditions. This appears to be a move towards self-sovereignty and a recognition of the importance of collective action in agriculture for long-standing systems.

While there is strong favoritism towards using traditional seeds and practices, farmers still see the value of commercial hybrids in terms of higher yields in times of environmental stress. Many of the ejido communities studied by Bellon 1991 and 1995 operate with a mix of modern techniques like herbicide, fungicide, and fertilizer application alongside traditional farm techniques such as teams of oxen, wooden plows, and usage of several maize varieties for market and subsistence. In this communities, application of chemicals comes from a push from the government—which highlights the importance of external influences—in addition to the opportunity for a higher yield. The mix of using traditional and commercial seeds demonstrates that farmers see the value in both in creating resilient systems. Since farmers produce for themselves, income resiliency factors in just as much as crop resiliency.

According to Mccullough and Matson 2011, knowledge systems are “networks of linked actors, organizations, and objects that perform a number of knowledge-related functions that link knowledge and know how with action” (Fig. 6). In one case study in the Yaqui Valley in Mexico, Mccullough and Matson 2011 highlight the effects of enlarging such a network. In a post-green revolution agricultural system, the farmers integrate scientific knowledge with agricultural traditions. New practices are tailored through farmer input as innovative producers in the community provide a link between informal knowledge and modern management practices.

Figure 6: Agricultural knowledge system in the Yaqui Valley from 1995 to 2005. Source: McCullough and Matson (2011)

3. Cultural importance of maize

The fact that modern domesticated crops are the result of a process of selection from wild relatives carried on over millennia by traditional farmers underlines the importance of traditional knowledges in agriculture. Maize is a staple crop in Central and South America and for many farmers is the main crop cultivated and used for subsistence. In the region, different varieties of maize are not only related to climate conditions but also to cuisine, as different varieties of maize are used for different traditional dishes (e.g. Fig. 7). In Mexico and other countries of Latin America, maize constitutes the main source of caloric intake. The per capita daily caloric intake from maize grain in Mexico, mainly in the shape of tortillas and other traditional maize-based foods and drinks, is over one thousand kilocalories, compared to 97 in the U.S ( Conabio 2017).

Additionally, maize plays a central role in the cosmogony of the Maya people in Mexico and Central America. For instance, in a rural community in Guatemala the protection of maize once harvested is extremely important and often includes customs relating to indigenous beliefs (Johannessen 1982). All these traditional practices both in the fields and in the tables explain why traditional farmers in the region value their own varieties of maize and are always experimenting with them in order to improve them. This, in turn, benefits them by allowing them to adapt their crops to new climate conditions.

Figure 7. Tortillas made with different varieties of maize


We only looked at the benefits of traditional maize systems from the perspective of maize for human consumption. Thus, we do not venture to speak about the relevance of such systems from the perspective of maize for animal feeds or for the production of biofuels or sweeteners. Also, our meta-analysis was constrained to Latin American countries where traditional farming practices have regional similarities. While some of these practices can be adapted to other regions in order to improve resiliency of agricultural systems, the fact that these systems of practices are developed in very specific cultural context, their implementation in other parts of the globe may not be economically feasible or culturally relevant.


Environmental Aspects:

The fact that modern domesticated crops are the result of a process of selection from wild relatives carried on over millennia by traditional farmers underlines the importance of traditional knowledges in agriculture. Maize fields with highly diversified varieties adapted to local but changing conditions, experimentation and social networks of exchange combined with cultural ties between people and maize effectively result in more resilient systems. Traditional farming uses a number of maize varieties which increases genetic diversity along with rotating crops according to season. This allows for maize that withstands dry, rain, or temperate climates. Ecological resiliency is improved by in situ conservation of genetic and species diversity, which creates redundancies that protect the system when one of the elements fails with extreme environmental stresses.

Social Aspects:

A mix of traditional and modern farming practices seem to be present in most communities analyzed. The connection to the land and the knowledge from traditional practices work hand in hand with the benefits that modern technology can provide for income and yield. The social aspect of traditional farming may seem negligible but is integral to many communities. Farmers are aware that in order to deal with climate change, education and action from all members is needed. Seeds are exchanged between farmers and, as described above, knowledge systems provide a flow of information between sectors of research, policy, and practice. Social resiliency is improved by the creation of strong social networks of exchange of seeds and knowledge within members of one community and with external actors

Economic Aspects:

These traditional systems produce maize yields that can feed an important part of the population with their preferred culinary options. Moreover, the incorporation of other species into maize fields could complement local diets. Thus, maize traditional agricultural practices are economically feasible and culturally appropriate adaptation strategies to climate change. Adoption of such practices can help to achieve 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero hungry while also contributing to Goal 13: Climate Action by creating climate smart systems that produce important sources of caloric intake.


1The Mexican ejido is the land tenure system adopted after the peasant-led revolution of 1910. It was the institution through which the post-revolutionary government redistributed land to peasants and indigenous peoples and that later on became a system of peasant political representation and control. Nowadays, most agricultural systems—traditional and modern—take place in ejido lands.


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This project would not have been successful without the contributions of the outstanding students in our Food Systems, Sustainability, and Climate Change class.  We would particularly like to acknowledge the wonderful and challenging questions, and the specific knowledge that students with different areas of expertise provided. In addition, we would like to thank Professor Wattiaux and Bailey Fritsch for their suggestions and feedback.

About the Authors

Roofia Beg: I am a senior majoring in Biology with a Global Health certificate. My interest is in looking at food and agricultural trends around the world and what it means for sustainability and human health.  

Alicia Barceinas Cruz: I am studying a PhD in Environment and Resources. I am interested in the interaction between land policy, land politics, and forest resources in the Mexican ejido.

Keywords:Climate change, resiliency, agricultural systems, traditional knowledge, genetic diversity   Doc ID:90235
Owner:Michel W.Group:DS 471 Food Production Systems and Sustainability
Created:2019-03-07 15:27 CDTUpdated:2019-04-25 11:09 CDT
Sites:DS 471 Food Production Systems and Sustainability
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