Classic milpa maize intercrop can help feed communities forgotten by development

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The traditional milpa intercrop — in which maize is grown together with beans, squash, or other vegetable crops — can furnish a vital supply of food and nutrients for marginalized, resource-poor communities in the Americas, according to a study published today in Nature Scientific Reports.

One hectare of a milpa comprising maize, common beans, and potatoes can provide the annual carbohydrate needs of more than 13 adults, enough protein for nearly 10 adults, and adequate supplies of many vitamins and minerals, according to the study. The research was based on data from nearly 1,000 households across 59 villages of the Western Highlands of Guatemala and is the first to relate milpa intercropping diversity with nutritional capacity, using multiple plots and crop combinations.

“The milpa was the backbone of pre-Columbian agriculture in North America, Mexico, and Central America,” said Santiago López-Ridaura, specialist in agricultural systems and climate change adaptation at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and lead author of the article.

“Milpa production anchored around locally-adapted maize is still an essential food and nutritional lifeline for isolated, often indigenous communities throughout Mexico and Central America, and can be tailored to improve their food and nutritional security, along with that of small-scale farmers in similar settings.”

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