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April 01, 2021

Cmaíz, the shining of Mexican tortilla

In the evening, as the children arrive from school and adults from work, the ovens begin to bake a flat, round corn dough with a moist and cooked texture, ready to roll up and invade the palate. 

One, two, three or even more kilos of tortilla are distributed daily in Mexico to accompany the meals of each family. However, the producers of tortilla use flour that lacks a high nutritional value for human consumption, and thus causing a problem in the country. 

As a result, Cmaíz - a Mexico City-based company was founded by Irving Rubí, Oscar Méndez, Luis Cardenas, Cristina Rivero and others entrepeneurs in order to produce corn tortillas via a mix of the traditional process of nixtamalization and biotechnological innovation and distribute its product in markets, restaurants, kitchens and homes throughout the Mexican Republic.

The main objective of the project is to bring innovation into the corn and corn derivatives industry in a technological, social and sustainable manner, as well as research and develop products based on this natural resource.  For the partners, this is a way to fix the lack of nutrients in tortillas through the creation of organic products and transform the failures that this industry carries, while at the same time provide employment opportunities.

Climate change hampers corn production

A napkin wraps some edible discs between its fabrics, one on top of the other, resting at the centre of a food shrine. The natural heat that rises from the centre of the table and flows into the air after leaving the racket of the production line at the Leyes de Reforma neighborhood, causes the comforting aroma to manifest itself in the dough, thus kindling the appetite. 

This supplement serves as the perfect companion to any dish, and became a popular food item in Mexico due to its historical context and high nutritional value, which includes high amounts of calcium and potassium as well as caloric and protein content.

Since its arrival in the kitchens, approximately 12.3 million tons of corn are consumed in the form of tortilla in Mexico, with 64 percent of producers using the conventional corn-dough-tortilla method, while 36 percent of them opt for the flour industry. Despite these figures, there are few mass production centers that employ the nixtamal technique, according to the a survey conducted in 2017 by the Federal Consumer Protection Agency.

Avoiding the nixtamalisation process negatively affects the quality of the dough. This problem stems from climate change, the migration of farmers and a deficient and ambiguous manufacturing industry that encourages the development of crops without food security. This results in Mexico importing 47 percent of its corn from foreign countries, and economically and socially degrading the nation's agriculture, according to data from the Consulting Group of Agricultural Markets of Mexico (SAGARPA).

When rolling up a tortilla and eating it, one is not aware that it is derived from imported corn or that it’s, for the most part, transgenic, which makes it only viable for human consumption. This has led to few farmers opting for the conservation and improvement of native corn seeds that have been lost over time, as most farmers lack the resources required for their treatment and cultivation due to the swelling climate crisis.

After continuing with an old cultivation pattern, in which the seed is planted without any previous research or providing solutions that reduce pollution, farmers are persuaded to use fertilizers instead of biofertilizers. If the latter is used, natural antibiotics based on living organisms are developed, which avoid microbial contaminations and promote organic production without damaging or contaminating the soil.

When CMAIZ realised that there were few establishments that actually served quality food and that they lacked cultivation techniques, they started using biotechnology in order to develop corn-based products. This is how their initiative was born with the goal of providing supplements using bioremediation methods that provide control over the environmental impact and satisfy the economic, political, social and nutritional needs of the country and its people. 

This is how Cmaíz production process will use biofertilisers -living organisms- such as natural antibiotics that prevent microbial contamination and promote organic production without damaging or contaminating the Mexican soil, since its goal is to make good tortillas.

From dough to tortilla: biotechnology as a vindication of corn

When the clock strikes noon and its hands continue to count the seconds until sunset, Mexicans go to their nearest shop to purchase the sacred dough: the tortilla. 

Each tortilla shop creates and sells corn flour; although this process is practical and cheap, it means that the dough has little nutritional value. 

It is due to this that Cristina Rivero, a biotechnology student at Anahuac University, directs, coordinates and uses her studies to create secure spaces, in which science molds the main compounds of corn from this great cultivation network, with the aim of establishing health protocols around the respective nutrients that the dough lacks.

Biotechnology uses different organisms, or their derivatives, to produce new products or improve existing processes. These microorganisms, together with living organisms, help to improve food and its industrial processes without resorting to chemical synthesis in the creation of the final food product. 

The idea of ​​sharing is embedded within their business; it arises from the development of an ancestral tortilla. Despite being the main thesis of the project, these Mexican entrepreneurs do not only intend to make food, but to renovate the agricultural fields and improve crops using biotechnology. By doing so, they seek to tackle the damage induced by climate change and droughts, which caused Mexico to import corn instead of producing its own.

“The corn that is imported into Mexico is transgenic and comes mainly from the United States, which reduces jobs in this branch,” said Cristina Rivero, Cmaíz's head scientist. “There is not enough support for Mexican crops and the solution we propose is to implement research in the development of hybrid corn with the same creole corn that the country provides.” 

The main proposal that Rivero presented was that by exposing the creole seeds to climatic changes they will become naturally resistant and will begin to mutate into genetic variabilities, causing them to carry stronger characteristics or resistance among the corns, with the aim of providing the B3 Vitamin that only a good tortilla delivers. 

“To date, Mexico has around 64 species of creole corn, which are constantly lost due to not encouraging new cultivation techniques, since, over time, they disappear because climate conditions are in constant flux, and a biological species is always adapting to their environment. If these corns are not exposed to the adverse or stressful environment of the country, they will become extinct,” Rivero said.  

"Without corn, there is no country": the innovation and reinvention of Mexican corn

Cmaíz is focused on enhancing the symbol and the oldest tradition in Mexican cuisine, with a cooking process that respects tradition, flavour and quality. Therefore, it promotes three main innovation ideas for this product: hybridisation of seeds by region, the use of totomoxtle for the production of bioplastics and the use of nejayote as a bio-polyelectrolyte.

It intends to carry out hybridisations derived from the different seeds that are grown in a specific area of ​​Mexico, which allows them to preserve their genetic variability for longer, as well as improve the species, its yield, nutritional value and spawn a combination of unique characteristics, so as to provide adequate nutritional value within the tortilla. 

When obtaining the seed, the intention of this Mexican company is to produce tortillas from nixtamalisation, which is cooking the corn grain together with a calcium-hydroxide solution that hydrates the grain with the proteins and cell walls to partially gelatinise the starch. Throughout the cooking process, the corn will absorb the calcium and potassium to obtain the necessary nutrients. 

This development also makes it possible to decontaminate grains and add amino acids that the human body cannot produce on its own. Therefore, a tortilla made by Cmaíz will have better consistency, will be more nutritious and will cook easily, giving the sensation of eating freshly cooked dough straight from the pan to the roof of your mouth. 

In order to apply this process, wastewater is obtained. Better known as Nejayote, wastewater is highly corrosive due to its pH levels and serves as an organic compound for the previous treatment in the production of tortillas and the irrigation of crops and plants.

Nejayote will increase production and will act as fertiliser for crops to improve the bioavailability of nutrients and increase their absorption tolerance to abiotic stress. This can contribute to the reduction of its environmental impact and improving crops, creating a greater number of jobs with new planting techniques and biological control of Mexican land.

Image: Valerie