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How do we scale our impact to reach 100,000 families in Guatemala—and begin to reduce nutritional deficiencies for the entire country?

Semilla Nueva’s lab technician, Ana Marquez, using the HD-XRF machine.

Answer: We need to develop even higher yielding seeds with the same great levels of nutrition as our current F3! This is how we can provide farmers with what’s most important to them: enough food to feed their families and enough income to put their children through school.

How do we develop new seeds? Semilla Nueva is developing thousands of new experimental seeds each year and then testing every one of them for nutrition. This would normally cost thousands of dollars and take months to receive results from big, established laboratories. So, instead, we launched our own laboratory with new, cutting-edge technologies earlier this year.

In 2020, thanks to the support of our generous donors and technical assistance from a cutting-edge company based in the US, Z-Spec, Semilla Nueva purchased top-of-the-line equipment, including a HD-XRF machine and mill, and hired a Research and Development team, led by the organization’s first PhD Plant Breeder, Dr. Fredy Longo.

Zewu Chen, the President of Z-Spec and the inventor of the HD-XRF machine we purchased, explains, “The monochromatic XRF gives very quick testing for low elemental content in a sample. In this case, it detects and quantifies the Zinc content in a corn seed in less than a minute, which will help Semilla Nueva greatly to select Zinc-rich corn seeds to grow Zinc-rich corn.”

Zewu Chen, Ph.D, invented the JP500 X-Ray Fluorescent (XRF) analyzer in 2001.

Our small but mighty Research and Development team had never used a mill or HD-XRF before, making Our small but mighty Research and Development team had never used this HD-XRF nor a mill before, making their first order of business to learn to operate the equipment and establish a protocol for the laboratory. Dr. Longo is proud of his team and the strides they have made in just a few months’ time. “This protocol is fundamental for the laboratory to operate efficiently and effectively,” explains Longo—“and we are confident that it will lay a foundation for Semilla Nueva’s sustained success.” 

Since joining the team in May, Ana Marquez, Semilla Nueva’s Lab Technician, has adjusted quickly to the demanding nature of the work. She mills 80 to 100 samples a day, three days a week, totaling nearly 300 samples a week. The other two days each week are spent making XRF reads and reviewing analysis. Longo assures that it will not be long before the team is analyzing 400 per week—and Semilla Nueva hopes to be examining 1,000 samples per week by the end of the year.

The second most important fruit of the Research and Development team’s labor is the level of accuracy that they have achieved through testing. They determined that Semilla Nueva’s HD-XRF is statistically comparable to the gold standard for precision (the ICP). “When we sent a set of corn grain samples to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and analyzed a copy of the same set of samples ourselves, we found that our Zinc results have a 96% correlation to the CIMMYT’s ICP data, which means that our data is highly reliable,” explains Longo.

Every year we evaluate hybrids, but this year our HD-XRF can evaluate them for us, saving us significant time and money. We have 300 hybrids in our portfolio and the HD-XRF can help us identify which ones to use and which ones not to use—without ever leaving Guatemala! In fact, the team is already testing a hybrid in the field that exceeds the zinc levels of our current hybrid seed. “We are on the right track to delivering high quality materials to the sales team in the near future,” states Longo.

At this rate, we will be able to check nutritional levels at scale and build the foundation for long-term efforts to develop better seeds that will contribute to reducing nutritional deficiencies for the entire country of Guatemala. “Perhaps what makes me most happy and proud is that with a lot less we do a lot more,” reflects Longo.

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