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More Beans: Better Crops, Better Nutrition in Guatemala

Luis Flores, Guatemala

According to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the indigenous Mayan population of the western highlands of Guatemala remains one of the most undernourished in the world. In 2013, Irvin Widders, professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture and director of the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab (LIL), and Luis Flores, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Community Sustainability, proposed a project to address the problems facing Guatemala.

They realized that improving nutrition in the western highlands required the following goals:

  • Increasing bean yields.
  • Increasing bean consumption.
  • Improving nutrition education, especially about the long-term health benefits of proper nutrition.

A year later, in 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and USAID’s Guatemala Mission awarded funds to the LIL to initiate MASFRIJOL, Spanish for “more beans,” with Flores as principal investigator.

High-Quality Seeds

MASFRIJOL began its work by providing 15,000 smallholder farmers each with 5 pounds of high-quality seed of improved, disease-resistant bean varieties adapted to the unique agroecology of the region.

Through its collaboration with the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture (Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería y Alimentación), the project also provides farmers training on soil preparation, seed germination and safe bean storage postharvest. The training helps farmers improve their integrated crop management, enabling them to grow more beans on their land and safely store the increased yields long-term. As a result, beans can last up to six months after harvest.

MASFRIJOL’s training team has also developed technical guides and videos that focus on key training messages.

“Key messages are limited to three to five per topic, so farmers and families can remember to put them into practice at home,” said Celina Wille, MASFRIJOL agricultural extension specialist and MSU assistant professor of community sustainability. “We don’t want to overwhelm them with too much information but build on the knowledge they have — and then lead them to new skills for growing and consuming more beans.

“For example, in our training on seed storage — one of 15 training modules offered through MASFRIJOL — we make sure participants understand exactly how to use special plastic bags to store and preserve their grain for six to 12 months, and that optimal seed humidity for bean storage is less than 14 percent. The science behind these principles is interesting, but the farmers don’t need to understand such details to use the bags, so training doesn’t emphasize them. We focus on practical skills that can be easily applied.”

And applied they are. Many farmers who had become used to inferior seed quality and assumed that beans were difficult and risky to produce have reported twofold bean yield increases. And most are saving beans for family consumption and the next planting season instead of selling them.

Safe storage is critical to ensuring increased bean consumption beyond the month or two after harvest. Weevils, which are attracted to open containers of beans, are the main threat to bean quality and can destroy a stored harvest in a month. GrainPro storage bags, which are made of three extruded layers of a special plastic material and distributed through MASFRIJOL, have helped prevent the infiltration of weevils and other pests into stored beans.

Locally operated community seed depots are also being developed to ensure that quality planting seeds will continue to be available to farmers who are unable to save seed from harvest because of unexpected agricultural challenges or other problems.

Nutrition Education
Within months of the improved seed distribution and crop management education, MASFRIJOL, working with the Guatemalan Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud Pública de Guatemala), began establishing nutrition education programs to increase the understanding of the link between regular consumption of beans with maize and improved health.

With its partners, MASFRIJOL has developed culture-sensitive educational materials that accommodate the literacy and language barriers of the target populations, including a coloring book for children focused on making healthy food choices. Lessons include dietary information designed for both the general adult population and the more vulnerable populations of women of childbearing age and young children.

Bean and nutrition fairs are held to unite communities and raise awareness of the importance of bean consumption. Held in open fields or community markets, educational activities include informational and instructional videos, taste testing, recipe contests and projects that engage community members directly. A video on protein complementarity, for example, is followed by a discussion on how to proportionally integrate maize and beans into favorite recipes.

Other teaching programs focus on the dietary health of children, including how to make a bean-based formula for young children to replace atole, a maize-sugar beverage given to infants that provides calories but little nutrition. They also include instruction and practice on how to prepare an appetizing bean-based porridge often enjoyed by young children.

Two years after its formation, MASFRIJOL reports that:

  • Families consume more beans at family meals (at least three times a week).
  • Infants and children younger than 5 years are being fed more beans on a daily basis instead of a predominantly maize-based diet.
  • Families are learning to measure how many pounds of beans they need per week to meet their food requirements.

Although there is more work to do and more people to reach, MASFRIJOL is succeeding in its project goals. Families are growing and eating more beans and sharing them with neighbors. MASFRIJOL teams have empowered communities to manage improved varieties on a sustainable basis and implement technologies and practices to grow and consume more beans in the future.

- excerpted from Marguerite Halversen, “MASFRIJOL: Spreading the message for better health in Guatemalan highlands,” AgBioResearch Futures, Spring/Summer 2016.

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