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Mexico’s heirloom corn is dying out–but this designer has a plan to stop it

Totomoxtle is a new material that’s not unlike wood veneer. But instead of trees, it’s made out of the husks of endangered species of Mexican corn.

Industrial farming of corn–not just for consumption, but for making materials like bioplastic and fuel–has led to less prolific maize species becoming endangered. In Mexico, designer Fernando Laposse is trying to stop this process and boost heirloom varieties of corn with a material called Totomoxtle.

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Totomoxtle is essentially a veneer made of Mexican heirloom corn husks, which are cut and peeled off the cob, ironed flat, and glued onto paper pulp or fabrics. Each panel has a distinct pattern and coloring, ranging from deep purples and blues to light creams and browns. When they harden, Laposse explains, you can cut them in different shapes either by hand or laser. The pieces are then assembled for use in furniture or interior surfaces on walls, floor, or ceilings. According to Laposse, Totomoxtle isn’t just about putting a new cool material in the hands of designers.

“Totomoxtle focuses on regenerating traditional agricultural practices in Mexico, providing income for impoverished farmers and conserving biodiversity for future food security,” he says.

Fernando Laposse [Photo: courtesy Fernando Laposse]
Right now, most corn consumed in the world comes from big farmers, especially in the United States. And most of it is not used for human consumption, but to create products like corn syrup, plastics, fuels, and animal food. While delicious and tastier than its industrial counterpart, heirloom maize can’t compete in volume with those varieties, so it’s being pushed out of the market and into extinction. In fact, when NAFTA (the North American commerce treaty between Canada, U.S., and Mexico) came to be, traditional corn farmers in Mexico–some of whom are descendants of the ancient Mesoamericans that domesticated maize and created the biodiversity that exists in Mexico in the first place–were almost eliminated.

By offering a way to recycle maize husks, Tototmoxtle offers farmers a way to maximize the profit from their product. Laposse says that his project operates in partnership with the community of Tonahuixtla, a small village of native Mixtec farmers and herders in the southwestern state of Puebla.

[Photo: courtesy Fernando Laposse]
“Totomoxtle started in 2015 when I was doing an artist residency in Oaxaca,” Laposse says via email. “At the time the Mexican supreme court was deciding whether or not to put a ban on genetically modified corn in the country after months of protests where local people were asking for it.” He noticed that despite the political action, the economic problem was going unaddressed: In short, native corn, he says, isn’t very profitable anymore. “This is where I said well how about celebrating the diversity of native corn and using their colorful husks to make a new material?”

Of all of the challenges of finding a way to create a new material out of native species, Laposse says that reintroducing those varieties was the most difficult. “The farmers in Tonahuixtla had lost all their seeds as they were encouraged to swap them for the supposedly better industrial seeds,” he says. “Reintroduction was very complicated as corn is extremely sensitive to altitude and soil composition so you can just simply bring seeds from an area with similar weather.”

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Denise Costich of CIMMYT. [Photo: courtesy Fernando Laposse]
Fortunately, the project managed to get the attention of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, the world’s largest corn seed bank. Farmers were able to find the seeds they needed in their seed vault and, with the center’s technical help, resuscitate six species of native Mexican corn.

According to Laposse, Totomoxtle doesn’t just hold potential for local biodiversity and culture in Mexico. The final product is similar to the effects you get with some exotic wood, like rosewood or bloodwood–tree species that take decades to grow in tropical rain forest. They are harvested for furniture, damaging these important biological reserves. He believes that Totomoxtle can be a good alternative to these hardwoods, to be used in marquetry, interior surfaces, and furniture in general.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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