High up in Venezuela’s Andes, the township of Mucuchies is home to a campesino-led initiative striving for sustainable agricultural production. Integral Producers of the Highlands [PROINPA, for the organization’s Spanish-language initials] is widely recognized not only for its top-notch seed potatoes but also for its scientific initiatives such as a state-of-the-art biotechnology lab, a germplasm bank, and, most recently, an aeroponic seed production facility.
One of the secrets to PROINPA’s success is its democratic organization and its emphasis on education. Founded 24 years ago, the organization’s structure has an assembly of associated producers as its topmost level of decision-making, meaning that the producers themselves are in charge. These associates are all hard-working campesinos but have also achieved high levels of formal education. Many have doctorates or masters, and all have gone through educational processes centered on the science of sustainable food production.
PROINPA’s core mission of food sovereignty is of strategic importance to a country under siege. The organization pursues this goal by promoting agroecology, crop diversification, endogenous scientific development, and a new social organization of production.
In Part I of this series, we learned about the history of PROINPA. In Part II, we focus on science and seed production.
Hugo Chávez talked a great deal about seeds, both figuratively and literally. For him, the commune was a seed of socialism. More literally, however, socialism implied sovereignty with regard to both seeds and food production. In this section, PROINPA associates explain their efforts to produce seeds and thereby contribute to food sovereignty in Venezuela.
Caroly Higuera: For PROINPA, the care and development of seeds is strategic because we want the highlands to prosper based on a sustainable model of agriculture. This also means that having control of seed supply is really important. Our efforts in seed production date back to 2003, but it was in 2005 that the project truly gained momentum and got off the ground.
Gerardo (Lalo) Rivas Gil: Potatoes, along with rice, sugar, meat, and dairy products, are among the main foodstuffs in the world. In Venezuela, we have sovereignty in the potato production sector, though not in seed production. Although PROINPA has significantly contributed to Venezuela’s potato sovereignty, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
As [20th-century intellectual] Uslar Pietri wisely pointed out, “We need to sow petroleum.” More investment is essential to fully consolidate our sovereignty in terms of seed potato production.
Rafael Romero: The potato comes from here, from the Andes, where there were hundreds of varieties before the colonization. Some say that you could create a rainbow with the colors of the different varieties here. However, the rigor of capitalist production led to the loss of many varieties. In fact, at one point, we got close to losing control of seed potatoes in Venezuela and around the continent. Large corporations developed commercial varieties that displaced the endogenous ones, and many countries in the region became almost 100% dependent on seed potato imports from Canada and other countries.
That’s why, in addition to producing commercial seed potatoes, we are also working to recover and care for native potato [papa nativa] varieties. Conventional potatoes have a cycle of 90 to 120 days, whereas the endogenous ones have a cycle of 160 to 180 days – that’s why they get pushed out of the market. Nonetheless, native varieties taste better and are rich in beta-carotene and vitamins A and C.
We pursued the recovery of the native potato with Liccia Romero, a professor at Los Andes University, and named the varieties after our grandmothers: Nicolasa, Maximina, Sabina, and others.
But at PROINPA, while caring for native potato varieties and reproducing some of the standard market seed potatoes, we also develop our own varieties. The first one we developed is called “Angostureña.” We did the selection work for over ten years until we were satisfied with a variety that would work well in our highland conditions. Our second variety, which is still in the research and development stage, is called “Misedeña.” We have been working on it for seven years, and we hope that we will be able to take it to the National Seed Commission for approval next year.
Our varieties are developed to be resilient to disease, and their characteristics allow them to adapt well to the soil here.
Any Mora Castillo: There are two kinds of seeds, agamic and sexual. The Biotechnological Center for Training in the Production of Agamic Seeds [CEBISA for its Spanish initials] works on the development and preservation of agamic seeds. In the agamic process, we take a part of the plant and multiply it in a growth medium that provides macro and micronutrients. The rhizome then goes to a growth chamber where it’s kept for one to two months, and then we take them to the greenhouse where we actually produce the seeds for our producers and for the market.
Here, in CEBISA, we have a stock of 82 in-vitro potato variety seedlings, which allows producers to choose seed potatoes according to the type of soil where they work, its altitude, etc. The most requested varieties are Unique, Beautiful María, Granola, but also Yungai and Diacol Capiro.
On a yearly basis, we produce some 250 thousand in-vitro seedlings at CEBISA.
Rafael Romero: Venezuela has very strict rules and regulations. This, in principle, is good, but there is one major issue: regulations are far more liberal when it comes to seed potato imports, which puts seed potato producers in Venezuela at a disadvantage. And there are other bottlenecks.
The Venezuelan institution that regulates the importation of seeds follows international protocols and binational agreements. What is the problem with this? There are many microorganisms that are not a problem, for example, for potato production in Canada. However, when you bring those seeds to the tropical Andes, the microorganisms find optimal conditions, hurting both the land and the crop.
But what exactly are we talking about when we mention diseases and the varying standards that are applied? Venezuela frequently imports diseased seed potatoes, while ours – because of the regulations – are almost disease-free. To be specific, Venezuelan seeds may carry up to 1.5% infection, while the Canadian seeds that we get can have a staggering 33% infection rate. Factor in a climate here that is friendly to virus growth and you get the picture.
In CEBISA’s seed potato line, we have a benchmark: within our premises, every stock must yield 5 tubers, and each tuber must produce five 200-gram seed potatoes, totaling a kilo. When scaled up, this comes to 100 kilos of seed potatoes which will yield a ton of potatoes by the end of the cycle. Of course, the full cycle that goes from the first seed potato to a ton of potatoes takes years.
For this cycle to truly materialize, we work based on the 3S rule: healthy seeds [semilla sana], healthy soil [suelos sanos], and dedicated producers [productores serios].
Rafael Romero: The seeds that we now produce are social property, and this idea goes hand in hand with the 2015 Seed Law.
I should point out that there is something really special about this law: it was written from the grassroots by producers and campesinos like us. In doing so, we broke with the practice of doing merely symbolic consultation, which is standard fare when it comes to legislative bills. When the debate opened up, the political spectrum varied from very radical positions to pro-Monsanto ones, but the end result was a coherent and advanced text that is useful both for producers and for our country’s sovereignty.
Our 1999 constitution explicitly prohibits intellectual property rights over living beings. However, the earlier 2002 Seed Law was rife with contradictions and problems and open to GMOs.
The 2015 Seed Law protects production because it states that seeds must be registered as social property, and we are proud to say that Angostureña, the seed potato developed by PROINPA, was the first seed registered under the new law. But that was just the beginning, there are many more to come!
The 2014 law has other virtues. For one, it is the first law in the world to recognize the coexistence of the formal seed production system and alternative ones, i.e. campesino, Indigenous, and Afro-descendent practices of seed production and preservation. In other words, it recognizes their practices, and it doesn’t consider them retrograde or anachronistic. The law also protects both the formal and informal worlds of seed production. That’s how new seed protection centers or banks, quality committees, and silos began for the alternative sphere began to be promoted.
The law also bans the production of transgenic seeds, although some people question this. In fact, in 2019, transgenic corn seeds were imported and presented as a kind of panacea, but the yields didn’t live up to those promises.
For us, the idea that seeds are a public good and that, as the Seed Law states, their property should be social is right on target. This doesn’t imply that the seeds shouldn’t be registered. Angostureña, our variety, is registered but in the public domain. This is good because we won’t face a situation similar to what occurred with Bolivians and the quinoa seed. When Evo Morales began to promote it, it became known that the US had a patent for it already. On finding this out, he said: “This is not right, we have been sowing it for 10 thousand years!” What was the response from the patent-holders? They said: “That may be true, but we were the ones to patent it.” That’s why our registration process – which is not to be confused with a patent – is important.
Of course, not everything works perfectly. There are enemies of the Seed Law who campaign against what they unfairly call “pirate seeds.” They argue that the seeds that don’t come through the conventional corporate channels are the reason why the country is now facing a potato production crisis. That’s not true. First, there are external economic conditions hurt all national production in the campo and elsewhere. Second, the main problem when it comes to the Seed Law is that it’s not fully implemented. For us, the primary issue with the law lies not in its wording but in its incomplete execution.
The law is essentially about Venezuela’s much-needed transition away from seed dependency. Applying the law would ensure that our country produces its own seeds in a transgenic-free context. The Seed Law is our law, and by that I mean that it is a very important tool for people producing food for popular consumption and for Venezuela’s sovereignty.
Agroecology and diversification
PROINPA promotes agroecological production in the Venezuelan highlands and all around the country. Without being purists, its associates rely mainly on practices based on sustainability.
Rafael Romero: Conventional agriculture, with its heavy use of agrochemicals, is hegemonic in the country and around the world. That’s why promoting agroecology is part of PROINPA’s mission. We began with 25 associates but now we are 84. However, there are 2,000 producers working with us, and they also apply agroecological practices to varying degrees.
Furthermore, we are now reaching out to many small and mid-size producers nationwide through a collaborative project with the Corporation for Scientific and Technological Development [CODECYT, for its Spanish initials]. Through it, we are able to promote our seeds and agroecological practices in 18 states, and the plan goes on expanding.
César Mesa: Little by little we are transitioning away from the use of toxins. Instead, we apply steam-based disinfection in our greenhouses. We are thus able to eliminate or reduce harmful microorganisms, pests, and diseases. Once the ground is healthy, the need to use agrotoxins is highly reduced. Then, when we have to use fertilizers or pesticides, we use “green belt” products with low toxic content.
Vladimir Balza: I associated with PROINPA because I wanted to move away from conventional agriculture’s use of chemicals. For many of us, the shift to nonconventional, life-centered practices is a reality right now. It took practical and theoretical workshops, support from the organization, and a disposition to go against the current, but our experience shows that the transition is not only viable, but also economically sustainable and an improvement to the producer’s quality of life.
Carlos Julio Avendaño Torres: Agroecological practices go beyond merely eliminating harmful inputs. They include crop rotation, diversification, judicious water usage, and the reforestation of springs. Regarding the latter, we have a consolidated program dedicated to preserving local springs. Witnessing a once-depleted spring bubbling with vitality after we collectively care for it is truly a remarkable sight!
José Gregorio Gil Perez: I have been progressively reducing the use of agrotoxins. I replace them with humus, natural fertilizers including compost, and natural fungicides. These options are, in the end, cheaper, and they don’t saturate the ground with chemicals.
Some say that shifting to agroecological practices is dangerous but I would say that the danger lies in conventional practices. We all know this deep inside, but we have been led to turn a blind eye to it. In my many years of experience, when you use the PROINPA seeds and do away with agrotoxins, the production doesn’t go down. In fact, the tendency is to increase little by little.
PROINPA workshops have been important in promoting the transition, but Pueblo a Pueblo, a campesino organization working with us, is now helping us obtain alternative fertilizers at lower prices. We don’t even have to pay them upfront: at the end of the cycle, we sell the crop to Pueblo a Pueblo, and they discount the inputs that we got from them. This is a win-win situation: the campesino gets inputs, Pueblo a Pueblo gets healthy potatoes, and the ground is spared the devastation that comes with overuse of agrochemicals.
Caroly Higuera: While agroecology is in PROINPA’s DNA, there are two tendencies within the organization: one is more committed to conventional agriculture, whereas the other sees our highlands as a sanctuary and wants to end the use of agrotoxins once and for all. We have been able to strike a balance between the two: agroecological methods are key, but we understand that for production to be economically viable, some conventional practices may have to be kept, at least for now.
Caroly Higuera: Diversification is part of agroecology, it is a key agroecological practice. Our model is that every campesino should have five different crops plus some livestock. This practice is closer to the agricultural practices of our grandparents, but we don’t implement it out of some romantic nostalgia; diversification has proven to be far more sustainable than monoculture – better for the land and for the producer.
Richard Rivas: It is common that a PROINPA producer grows potatoes, strawberries, and garlic while maintaining a small pig pen and a few sheep. On the side, the family may run a country inn. This is the best way to do things, because if a crop fails or the price drops in the market, the family has alternative ways of sustaining itself.
Caroly Higuera: One of our goals is that every producer should have two cows and two oxen. The cows produce milk, which we can turn into cheese in small production units, while the oxen are there to work the land. Additionally, the manure is a natural fertilizer: it’s a virtuous circle!
Science for the people
PROINPA is known for its high-end biotech lab and is also committed to disseminating scientific information.
Caroly Higuera: We coined the term “open science” [ciencia abierta] in our early days to define the research and investigation methods we pursue. Open science ensures that our findings – which are not static but in permanent development – become available to small and mid-size producers and to sister organizations.
Alonso Trejo: At PROINPA we wear multiple hats – we are campesinos, scientists, and political actors. Recently, in collaboration with Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement [MST], we did a pilot project with carrots to assess their adaptability to our soil and climate. If all goes well, we will add carrot seeds to our seed bank.
I’m growing the carrot plants in my family’s plot, which has become a research field. I track the plants’ growth and their processes of regeneration. The plot I’m working on currently is 220 square meters. We began with 16 grams of seeds which should yield 1,2 kg. That will be increased to half a hectare, but our objective is to scale up seed production so that we will produce enough seeds for 45 hectares.
In this test field, we are also trying to promote diversity. That includes the incorporation of plants that attract pollinating animals.
The carrot seed project is still in process, so we are mostly talking about future projections right now. We identify every plant and measure its development and the quantity of seeds it yields. That way we have field statistics to track performance.
We also took a sample of our carrot seeds to CEBISA to study the embryo inside each seed. The results were good.
We are very happy with this initiative because it expands PROINPA’s research into crop diversification in the highlands, and we are doing it hand-in-hand with the MST, an organization that gives us both technical and political guidance.
THE CAMPESINO-SCIENTIST ALLIANCE
Caroly Higuera: We firmly believe that safeguarding, nurturing, and advancing seeds, along with ensuring availability to producers, is key to the progress of highland communities. For that reason, we have collaborated since 2003 with the Ministry of Science and Technology in a groundbreaking initiative known as the “Campesino-Scientist Alliance.”
The Alliance owes a great deal to Hugo Chávez’s vision of a new society. Its raison d’être is well stated in its name. Essentially, the goal is to bring together the expertise of scientists with the invaluable knowledge held by farming communities. There is still a long way to go since scientific knowledge is often controlled by corporations or academics isolated from the world’s real problems. Even so, the Alliance has been really important for organizations such as PROINPA.
Rafael Romero: The Ministry of Science and Technology oversees the Campesino-Scientist Alliance. They help us to establish links with scientific research centers. One such collaboration is with the Experimental Biology Institute of Venezuela’s Central University. When it comes to complex matters, their expertise proves invaluable. For instance, if we need to validate test results, they have the ability to test and contrast results. Similarly, when we have doubts regarding specific biotechnological processes, their guidance proves indispensable.
Most recently, a researcher from the Institute has been instrumental in assessing the susceptibility of various potatoes to different diseases. They are also assisting us in extracting DNA from a selection of potato varieties. This collaboration is vital, because we lack the necessary equipment and expertise. Additionally, they have helped identify specific bacteria affecting our crops and have provided guidance on how to eradicate them using basic equipment such as an incubator and a microplate reader.
Marisol Montilla: The Campesino-Scientist Alliance is really important for our country, since it overcomes the divide between ordinary people and scientists, who are often confined within their ivory towers. I really love the Alliance because it acknowledges that both campesinos – with their accumulated generational knowledge – and scientists – with their specialized knowledge and analytical skills – are important for society. The Alliance breaks paradigms and builds sovereignty.
Rafael Romero: The Biotechnological Center for Training in the Production of Agamic Seeds [CEBISA for its Spanish initials] got started in 2009 in a 40 square meter room in the evening high school in Mucuchies. The school was PROINPA’s educational headquarters at the time. Later, in 2014-15, we moved CEBISA to the town of Misintá, higher up in the mountain but not far from Mucuchies.
CEBISA maintains a germplasm bank consisting of seedlings grown in our in vitro laboratory and operates three on-site greenhouses. Recently we’ve added a hydroponic greenhouse where plants grow on a white tarp while the root systems – integral to the propagation of seed potatoes – are suspended in a dark environment.
Our CEBISA facilities in Misintá were made possible through a collaborative effort with CODECYT, a governmental institution dedicated to promoting the expansion of innovative and productive projects. CEBISA was the first project funded by CODECYT.
In addition to our ongoing research and the continuous production of agamic seeds for the highlands, CEBISA allowed us to increase our presence nationally. That’s in part because, in addition to our three greenhouses, the lab, and the germplasm bank, we now work with a network of nine greenhouses run by associated producers. Our organizational principles, our “open science” perspective, and our work in CEBISA are the reasons why we are now able to work with producers in 18 states, while maintaining a collaborative relationship with organizations such as Pueblo a Pueblo and CECOSESOLA. Working with these organizations has been a wonderful learning experience for us!
Any Mora Castillo: In our lab, we clone plants through agamic reproduction. This is how we produce not only potato seedlings, which is what we are best known for, but also stevia, yam, sweet potato, and garlic seedlings, among others.
The CEBISA laboratory is organized into three distinct zones. First, there’s an area where we house nutrient solutions and growth mediums that are meticulously crafted to cater to the unique requirements of each plant species. Then there is the development laboratory, which was designed according to Mercosur standards. Finally, there are the greenhouses where we produce the seeds that end up in the producer’s hands and their farms. On average, we produce 500 thousand pre-basic seed potato tubers per year in our greenhouses.
In our lab facilities, we have a deionizer that enables us to attain 100% pure water, which is essential for making precise salt mixtures. Additionally, we maintain a designated area for instrument sterilization and a laminar flow cabinet to prevent contamination. Since we have to cycle specimens out of the germplasm bank on a regular basis, our lab facilities are set up for us to produce at least four seedlings every month for each plant species that we preserve.
In our germplasm bank, we safeguard 82 potato varieties adapted to different soils, altitudes, and climates. Some are native, some are suitable for industrial processing, and others are for consumption. Additionally, we have 12 strawberry varieties, 8 yam clones, and 3 varieties of coffee. We also have sweet potato, garlic, and stevia specimens in our bank.
Rafael Romero: In the CEBISA laboratories, we emulate nature’s processes by carefully regulating factors such as light, nutrients, temperature, and humidity.
Our growth area is divided into two separate sections. There’s the germplasm bank, which serves as a genetic repository for the plant species that we preserve. Additionally, we maintain a separate controlled environment dedicated to scaling up, which is a step that precedes taking specimens – seed potato, for example – to the greenhouse.
Needless to say, what we produce in CEBISA – whether seeds or science – is not isolated from campesino production. After all, everyone who works in CEBISA is a campesino and our research and production is focused on producing the best genetic inputs for food production in our region.
CEBISA’S HYDROPONIC PROJECT
Rafael Romero: In the hydroponic approach, plants thrive without soil as their air-born roots remain in direct contact with a nutrient-rich water solution. Instead of sourcing nutrients from the soil, hydroponic plants derive their essential elements from water, thus enabling precise and efficient growth control.
By comparison, our two other greenhouses employ a conventional system that requires us to process the substrate with steam to ensure optimal conditions for the plants. That leads to a significant increase in manual labor.
Our hydroponic project, initiated this April, is a source of great pride and promise. While it is still too early for a final assessment, the initial results have been highly encouraging, pointing toward a more cost-effective and labor-efficient approach. In fact, with the hydroponic model, we aspire to yield 1000 tubers per square meter, a notable increase compared to the 200 tubers per square meter produced in our conventional greenhouses.
Jesús Argenis Suescun Monsalves: We’ve dreamed about growing seed potatoes hydroponically since we had a workshop on the method a few years ago. Now it became possible through support from the Ministry of Science and Technology. While the infrastructure requires more investment than a standard greenhouse, there are savings in terms of resources and labor, and everything points to increased yields.