Corn on the Border - NAFTA & Food in Mexico

Dawn Paley

Even in the quiet of late afternoon, the market down the street from my apartment in Mexico City is a hive of activity. Dozens of butchers cut up all kinds of meat and make sausages. Women display whole chickens, and offer to prepare them according to what a passing customer desires. There’s homemade ice cream for sale across from a fish stand, and a tortilla stand that always seems to have a line-up. I buy my vegetables from a man who stands at the top of a pyramid of lettuces, tomatoes, avocados, carrots, potatoes, and whatever happens to be in season. While he weighs and bags the veggies I select, he often talks about how good Mexican food is, but how so many people don’t eat the healthy and tasty things he offers for sale. Before I started working on this story, I assumed he was just talking up his business.

As I began to research for this article, I realized something: he’s right.

People’s diets in Mexico have changed drastically over the past decades, in tandem with the transformation of the country’s agricultural sector spurred by the North America Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1994.

According to Simon Fraser University professor Gerardo Otero, in 1985 Mexicans were consuming more food than Canadians on a per capita basis. From the mid-1980s on, “Canada started to surpass Mexico on a per capita intake of calories, and then the composition completely changed, Mexicans stayed with a very flat consumption of fruits and vegetables, Canadians and Americans started to increase fairly dramatically the intake of fruit and vegetables,” Otero told Watershed Sentinel. “The other interesting trend is that Mexicans started to consume a lot more meat… It’s a type of North American diet that is becoming generalized throughout the world actually, I mean if you look at figures in many, many countries in the world, that kind of diet based on milk and meat is being generalized.”

By 2009, for example, canola oil (used primarily in fast food and frying) was Canada’s single largest export product to Mexico. “If you want to know what are the sources of obesity, that’s where you should go,” said Otero, who is currently preparing a paper on what he calls the “neoliberal diet.” Mexico’s obesity rate is one of the highest in the world, and is climbing with every soft drink consumed. According to The Economist, in Mexico, “Diabetes is the top cause of hospital admission after childbirth, and the second-biggest cause of death.”

NAFTA’s Shock to the Countryside

But the changes to the farming sector unleashed by NAFTA represent more than a trend of people eating hamburgers and fries instead of tacos and drinking Pepsi instead of a traditional Jamaica juice. Along with changes in Mexico’s food system, NAFTA has caused a series of shocks to the Mexican countryside, forcing many farm workers to abandon their lands and look for work in cities or in the US or elsewhere. It has turned Mexico into a food dependent country, which is no longer able to feed its population without imports.
“NAFTA marked a breaking point … NAFTA privileged commercial agriculture, and small farmers were basically abandoned,” José Herrera Vizcarra, an advisor with the Cardenista Peasant Union in Mexico City, told Watershed Sentinel.

NAFTA was preceded by legislative changes allowing for the privatization of collectively-owned land. It also resulted in radical cuts to subsidies and loans for farmers and other supports in seeds, technical assistance, marketing and pricing that the state once provided. The last protections for agricultural products under NAFTA, which were applied to corn and beans, were dropped in 2008. On January 31st of that year, over 200,000 people marched in Mexico City against NAFTA’s final blow to Mexican farmers. Renegotiating NAFTA is a key tenet of those pushing to regain food sovereignty in Mexico.

“NAFTA created a disloyal competition, because the United States and Canada continued to subsidize agricultural producers, and we pulled the subsidies,” said Herrera, who has worked in Mexico’s agricultural sector for over 30 years. “It became impossible for small and medium producers to compete with producers from Canada and United States.”
No Profit in Farming

Agricultural subsidies in Mexico chalk in much lower than they do in Canada, which according to a 2005 estimate provided $3.7 billion to farmers, and the US, which paid out $19.1 billion in the same year. Mexican farmers, the majority of whom farm plots smaller than five hectares, receive between $78 and $102 per hectare per harvest cycle in government support, according to Herrera. “The peasants are often so poor that what they receive from [PROCAMPO, the federal assistance program for farmers], they use to satisfy their basic consumption needs,” he said.

A 2011 study showed that for small farmers in Mexico to produce a kilogram of corn it cost $3.72, compared to $1.67 per kilo in commercial farms. Both groups sell their product at a loss and rely on state support and other income to survive. “I have a hectare that’s maybe a quarter planted, and it gives me a ton (of corn per harvest),” said Pedro Viafuerte, who has land in Mexico State, but who works as a custodian in Mexico City in order to earn an income. “We use it for our personal consumption… and to fatten our livestock, because it doesn’t fetch the price it should.”

Because it is so difficult to turn a profit growing traditional foods, according to a report published by the Agriculture, Society and Development journal last year, most Mexican peasants no longer grow corn and beans as a means of economic survival. Instead, “most of the production that peasants obtain from their land plots (maize, beans, kidney beans, etc.) is for self-consumption … the greater part of monetary income is obtained from other activities linked to the land (fruit, flower or vegetable production) or of another type (commerce, paid work in factories or construction in Mexico or the USA).”

Canadian Mining Invasion

Not only did NAFTA usher a flood of lower-priced staple foods into Mexico and increase migration away from rural areas, it also opened the door to a massive expansion in the mining sector. Canadian companies dominate this sector, making up the majority of foreign mining companies in the country.

In Oaxaca, Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver has been at the centre of a deadly split between townspeople who are for and against the mine. I had the chance to meet Bernardo Vásquez, a prominent community activist and budding avocado farmer, before he was killed in March, 2012. He explained to me how the government of Oaxaca claims his community – the rural Zapotec village of San José del Progreso – is poor, but the people who live there have very basic needs and desires that could be fulfilled if locals had better access to irrigation and fair supports from government. “The government calls us poor but we live well,” said Vásquez. “The people say ‘we don’t want luxurious houses, or luxurious cars, we need water for our crops, we need fuel,’ that’s all we want, we don’t even need work. There’s a lot of work! What we don’t have is someone to pay us for it.”

Vásquez was clear about how people in his community need access to money in order to supplement the crops they grow for sustenance. The mining company, he said, didn’t bring anything worthwhile to the table. Instead, it divided the community. “We have fields and lands, we have work, what we don’t have is cash to get paid in, and the company isn’t giving us money, they’ll give you chickens or little things like that, which the people don’t need,” he told me in an interview in February, 2012.

About a month after our interview, Vásquez was murdered when an unknown assailant shot up his car on the road to San José Progreso. His cousin and brother, who were travelling with him, were both wounded in the attack. Instead of contributing to improving the situation of rural farmers, mega-mining projects have time and again exacerbated local conflicts and created long term environmental and water management problems.

Genetic Wealth of Corn Races

Regardless of the difficulties they face, farmers make up 20 per cent of Mexico’s labour force, compared with two per cent in Canada and the US. Small, medium, and large farmers throughout Mexico harvest a total of just over 20 million hectares of land each year, according to INEGI, the country’s national statistics agency. Almost eight million hectares of corn are planted in Mexico every year, followed by pastures for ranching, sorghum, and beans. Mexico is widely known as the birthplace of corn, over 52 races of corn grow here, some of which may be uniquely suited to withstand the impacts of climate change.

That genetic wealth and diversity of Mexican corn stocks, however, is also under threat. It has been over 10 years since researchers began publishing peer-reviewed articles proving that the DNA from genetically modified (GM) corn had begun mixing with indigenous species of corn in remote mountain areas of Oaxaca. The fight against genetically modified corn has been ongoing since the first evidence of GM corn was discovered. Some say this corn was introduced in Mexico through aid programs, where farmers were given corn seeds without being warned that they were genetically modified seeds.

According to Greenpeace Mexico, the world’s largest agro-business outfits, like Monsanto, Pioneers, and Dow Agribusiness, have put pressure on Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, to allow commercial planting and harvesting of genetically modified corn. A recent action to keep up the pressure against genetically modified corn saw tens of thousands march in Mexico City as well as a rotating hunger strike under the enormous Angel of Independence Statue.

“We believe that the only relation that we, as the growers, have with Mother Earth are the natural seeds,” hunger striker Francisco Jiménez Murillo told Democracy Now! “We have to remember that Mexico has 60 distinct varieties of corn that we have cultivated over the last 10,000 years, and with this, we have fed the world. It is a struggle for the life and health of our country.”

The struggle for food sovereignty and health is one that is reflected in every facet of life in Mexico. These days, markets like the one around the corner from where I live face stiff competition from big box grocery stores popping up all over the country. In 2011 alone, Wal-Mart opened one store a day in Mexico and Central America.

In the face of these changes, some farmers organize against genetically modified seeds, others get by, planting traditional crops, while still others have packed up and moved away, mostly to the US, but others to Canada, where they work to earn remittances for their families. The changes to Mexico’s agricultural and food systems over the past 30 years have been severe, but they are not irreversible.


Dawn Paley is an editor-member of the Media Co-op. She lives in Mexico where she is at work on her first book.

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