Seeds for Change: The Need for Stress Tolerant Crops in Central America

A story by Guest Blogger Kay Watt

Rice steamed in the husk and left to dry, then threshed is one of the subtle specialties of the region.



In Panama the rainy season lasts most of the year.  Rivers flood, runoff pours down hillsides, and the red clay roads become impassable. Horses strain forward against thick mud rising almost to their chests, soaked riders urging them on.  The village of Limón, 300 people and a two-room school house, both depend on and fight against the rain.  The small town grew up near a river that used to serve as transportation to the coast.  Although the area was once pure rainforest, almost none of it remains.  It has been transformed into cattle pasture, slash-and-burn farming fields, and shade-grown coffee farms.  The vast majority of families run subsistence farms and build their own houses out of wood and palm leaves.  There is a government-run agricultural resource outpost, but it is located over 2 hours away and the staff rarely visits.


I lived in Limón as a Peace Corps volunteer for over a year, getting to know the families and learning from their many kindnesses.  It is impossible in Limón, and most other rural Panamanian towns, to visit someone and leave without having been stuffed full of banana, or fried plantain, or a little rice, all accompanied with a very thick black cup of robusto rich with sugar. In turn, I taught in the school and ran seminars on organic composting, coffee plantation diseases, and seed saving.


One of the first things I noticed was although everyone raised their own food from chicken to pigs, to rice and corn, there were few vegetables.  To buy tomatoes or cucumbers or carrots you would have to travel two hours in the chiva, a modified and jam-packed pickup truck that served as local public transportation, to a very small shop that carried them.  They were imported from several provinces away, where farmers had access to consistent running water, electricity, and government assistance.  Most meals were pure starches: rice, manioc, plantain, over and over again.  Occasionally a fruit tree would be in season, and there would be a glut of starfruit or mariñon (the fruit that produces the cashew nut), but it never lasted long.  Although the area was lush with mango trees, none of them ever bore fruit.  Several of the older men would reminisce about the days when there was more forest and they could hunt the deer and tapir that lived there.

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I was sure I had all the answers for the town where I would work.  After living there I saw how easily the crops could be lost to fungi, disease, and flooding during the wet season. How the soil, already marginal at best, could barely support most of what was grown. How all the forest had been cut down in an attempt to continue to provide enough food. How crops that could enhance diets were incredibly fragile in the nutrient-deficient and harsh environment. While my composting lessons could improve soil health, they could do little remedy the complete lack of food security.  I could not change the climate, the availability of water, or the pests plaguing the crops.  The only variable that could be changed was the genetic makeup of the crops themselves.


Marginal arable lands such as the rainforest can be transformed into hale and healthy foundations for farming–the Amazonian human-made terra preta is proof of this. But in a world facing severe and sudden climate change, the families of Limón need more immediate help than increasing soil health over the course of several years.  Even with healthy soils, the town would still face severe yearly flooding.  Crops capable of resisting drought, flood, and disease could provide immediate nutritional relief and added food security.  By focusing on intensively farming and bolstering soil on key desirable acres, the rest of the forest could be left to grow once again.

  • The long journey to town.  Most of the rainforest has been cut down in favor of cattle pasture.
  • Spending time making a seed-sprouting table, or semillero, in the school garden. The students grew corn, beans, tomatoes, and cucumber.

Guest blogger Kay Watt is currently an undergraduate earning her second degree, in Plant Biotechnology, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work currently involves exploring arsenic sequestration in Arabidopsis plants through genetic manipulation. She served in Peace Corps Panama starting in 2009 as a Sustainable Agricultural Systems Volunteer, where she learned the finer points of hand-harvesting rice and playing competitive dominoes.