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Olotón, The Nitrogen Fixing Corn from Mexico

Corn has been a staple crop for much of the world. Especially here in the US, where we consume over 12 billion bushels of corn per year or 6.25 pounds of corn per person per year (the rest is used for animal feed and ethanol production). Olotón, a breed of corn from Mexico, can have huge impacts on global food production in a few ways.

Nitrogen Fixing and Fertilizers

Olotón is a towering plant that looks like Rhubarb. It secretes mucus from its stalks and can grow easily in some of the worst terrains. The way it can do this is through a process known as nitrogen-fixing. The mucus that it secretes absorbs nitrogen out of the air around it, allowing this plant to fertilize itself.

This method was speculated for years, but it was not able to fully be proven until just recently. A decades-long study in PLOS Biology was published in 2018, proving the mechanism and the bacteria that help it to happen.

But if we already have nitrogen fertilizer, why would we need a plant that makes its own nitrogen? Kristina Panos, who writes for Hackaday, put it very elegantly in her post on the issue:

"So if we already have nitrogen fertilizer, why even look for plants that do it themselves? The Haber-Bosch fertilizer-making process, which is an artificial form of nitrogen fixation, does make barren soil less of a factor. But that extra nitrogen in ammonia-based fertilizer tends to run off into nearby streams and lakes, making its use an environmental hazard. And the process of creating ammonia for fertilizer involves fossil fuels, uses a lot of energy, and produces greenhouse gases to boot. All in all, it’s a horrible thing to do to the environment for the sake of agriculture. But with so many people to feed, what else is there to do?"

This is why scientists and researchers have been looking for ways to allow for nitrogen fixation in plants, either through the widespread growing of this plant or through genetic modification and crossbreeding with current corn varieties on the market. And since "29%–82% of the plant nitrogen is derived from atmospheric nitrogen.", it can help with cutting down on artificial nitrogen fertilizers.

Colonialism and Biopiracy

Needless to say, the widespread US and corporate interest in this variety of corn has made many in Mexico to be on edge. This is not helped by the scientists providing very few details on where the corn came from, which we now know is Totontepec, which is a Mixe indigenous community located in the mountains of eastern Oaxaca in Mexico. The Mixe indigenous community has aired many grievances about the usage of this corn while providing nothing to the communities they got the corn from. A translation of what was said at the conference Communal Maize from Oaxaca to the World:

"From 2006 to 2015, North American scientists committed a series of grievances against Indigenous Mesoamerican communities under the guise of science and development. The result is a patent application for the genetic characteristics derived from olotón maize, which was taken from the Mixe community of Totontepec and whose existence has been documented since the 1950s in Guatemala and Mexico..."
"...We qualify efforts to patent olotón maize as an act of biopiracy, and we assert that the Universities of California – Davis and Wisconsin – Madison, at the service of the company Mars Inc., did not make any “discovery.” Rather, they have sought to appropriate our ancestral knowledge, showing a contempt for traditional science which in our communities is expressed as custom."

So it is important to find a way to use the corn to reduce pollution, while also respecting and supporting the indigenous communities that have been growing this corn for thousands of years. They have also decided to make the seeds for this corn available for free to people all over the world, so they do not have to be forced to buy them from giant corporations.

A Better World

In the end, using this technology, with the blessing of the communities that have been growing it, can help to reduce the overall amount of pollution that nitrogen fertilizers use. This can help us to feed our growing population without destroying the world in the process. This can also potentially reduce the cost of certain foods, as fertilizer costs the US billions a year.

It would be great to see this combined with other things that can reduce the overall impact on the planet, such as municipal composting services and the overall reduction of food waste. Now, we must wait and see if this new plant helps as much as scientists hope it will.

The video below shows how important corn is to Mexican culture and heritage:

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