Disappearing corn: Making tortillas without the main ingredient

September 30, 2019

Climate change makes growing corn in parts of Central America near impossible. So these farmers are turning to a new/old grain and making tortillas without the main ingredient.

Making tortillas without the main ingredient is possible using the grains in this photo. This photo shows two hands cupping a pile of small, round, white grains.
Sorgo Blanco Tortillero (Photo: Beatriz Oliver/SeedChange)

For family farmers in Nicaragua, maize is an essential crop, making an appearance at nearly every family meal in the form of tortillas. But long periods of drought and increasingly unreliable rain are making growing corn in the Central American country harder by the day.

What can small-scale farmers turn to when they can’t harvest maize due to the shifting climate? It turns out sorghum, an ancient grain that uses half the water corn needs to grow, can be a pretty tasty tortilla alternative.

“Tortilla is so important,” says Marvin Gómez, our Seeds of Survival program facilitator based in Honduras, of the daily staple. While a certain sorghum variety may be able to withstand drought, Marvin explains, whether or not it is able to replace corn as the main ingredient in tortillas can make or break the variety. It has to make good tortillas.

Here is an example of making tortillas without the main ingredient. The photo shows a tortilla cooking on a cast iron pan on a clay stove. There is light coming from inside the stove, suggesting there is a fire inside it.
A tortilla made with sorghum. (Photo: Beatriz Oliver/SeedChange)

So, crossing a sorghum variety from Burkina Faso with a local variety, Nicaraguan farmers actually bred the sorghum by selecting the ones that became the best tortillas. They called it Sorgo Blanco Tortillero.

And the farmers who bred the grain plan to spread it to other farmers in the region so everyone can benefit from its drought-resistance – and tastiness! Soon with the support of our Seeds of Survival program, farmers we work with in Honduras will have the chance to grow Sorgo Blanco Tortillero too, when they begin planting the Nicaraguan variety in their own fields.

What other ways are SeedChange supporters taking climate action in Nicaragua?

Santos Manuel Miranda (Photo: Beatriz Oliver/SeedChange)

Farmer Santos Manuel Miranda (above) has not seen a normal corn harvest in seven years. Unpredictable precipitation – often no rain at all – has made growing maize in rural Madriz, Nicaragua near impossible. Family farmers have picked up their lives and moved to cities in search of work and many local maize varieties have vanished, having died out after years of crop failures.

Santos is part of a network of corn breeders who are working together to improve the plant’s ability to survive drought, with SeedChange support.

Lino Paz Lopez in his field of maize and millet. (Photo: Beatriz Oliver/SeedChange)

“The solution is to diversify,” says Juana Mercedes López, a youth member of the Seeds of Survival program in Nicaragua. Farmers throughout the region are learning to diversifying their fields as an insurance policy against increasingly erratic seasons.

In Madriz, Lino Paz Lopez (above) sows maize and a local sorghum variety together. So if the maize dies, he still reaps this other grain that thrives even with little water. Next he plants a quick growing sorghum to make up for the lack of maize.

How is SeedChange working toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

Everyone is experiencing the effects of climate change but some people have been hit harder by erratic weather, floods and drought. At the forefront of these are farmers, whose very livelihoods rely on a healthy planet.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, also called Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The 17 goals sketch out how humanity can work toward shaping a better world.

Goal 13 is to take action on climate change and help people in more vulnerable areas adapt to the way the climate has already changed. Together, Canadians from coast to coast answer the call to take climate action and support these climate actions though SeedChange in Nicaragua.