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DISA 2017 | Semilla Nueva

Guatemala is one of the most chronically malnourished countries in the world. The answer to this problem may lie in a small seed.

Semilla Nueva, which translates as “new seed,” is a non-governmental organization (NGO) working with farmers in Guatemala to treat chronic malnutrition with a new corn seed, fortified with needed nutrients.

“The beauty in this innovation and solution is in the simplicity,” said Rachel Abbott, partnerships coordinator for Semilla Nueva. “It is just substituting a more nutritious version of a food they already eat and a crop they already produce.”

It was the company’s innovation and commitment to the Guatemalan people that inspired the University of Idaho’s Martin Institute to award the organization its 2017 Distinction in International Service Award (DISA).

“The fact that they work with the farmers and are actively listening to them is a big factor of why we chose Semilla Nueva,” said Michael Lowe, a DISA committee member and senior majoring in international studies in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. “They really develop a true partnership with their farmers.”

Each year, a committee of Martin Institute students and staff honors an NGO with the service award. The NGO must have roots in the Pacific Northwest and show exceptional international impact.

Semilla Nueva, whose founding members are primarily from Boise, is committed to curing malnourishment in Guatemala.

“Malnourishment happens in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, after that they will be chronically malnourished. They have one chance to get it right,” Abbott said. “Currently, half of all children in Guatemala suffer from stunting.”

Corn is the heart of the Guatemalan diet since it is cheap to buy and produce.

Semilla Nueva’s corn seeds are conventionally bred, not genetically modified, to contain 2.5 times more protein and 50 percent more zinc than the average corn seed grown in Guatemala. Protein and zinc are two of the main deficiencies in the Guatemalan diet.

During social marketing research, Semilla Nueva discovered that Guatemalan farmers knew malnutrition is a problem in their country, but they do not think that it exists in their own families. The research showed that nutrient-rich corn was not a priority for them. Farmers want their corn crops to have high yields, make good tortillas and be cheap.

Semilla Nueva produced a corn seed that met these needs, began promoting it to farming associations and then taught the farmers how to produce the seeds themselves.

“I have had tortillas made from our corn, and they do taste good!” Abbott said

Semilla Nueva ran a distribution pilot in 2016 and hosted over 50 promotional parties for farmers and their families. Demand of Semilla Nueva corn seeds increased by 10 times, affecting an estimated 27,000 Guatemalan diets.

The next step is for Semilla Nueva to produce, promote and sell the seed to farmers all over Guatemala and the rest of Central America, and to reinvest the money back into Semilla Nueva to make it self-sustainable. At present, they rely primarily on donor funding.

Abbott accepted the DISA recognition at the University of Idaho in April. While on campus, she met with students to discuss the organization’s goals and fellowship opportunities with Semilla Nueva.

Bill Smith, director of the Martin Institute, presented the award to Abbott.

“Our sincerest congratulations to Semilla Nueva, which continues the remarkable legacy of the DISA winners in doing important global work from roots in the Pacific Northwest,” Smith said.

For more information on Semilla Nueva, visit

Rachel Abbot speaks to students in the Martin Institute
Rachel Abbott's recent visit to the Martin Institute
A Guatemalan Farmer examines his corn crop
A Guatemalan farmer examines his corn seeds. (Photo credit to Semilla Nueva.)

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