VALLE DE CHALCO, MEXICO — Ruben Gomez just rode 18 hours on a cramped bus for a first look at something designed to keep him at home. Inside a cinder-block building in this poor Mexico City suburb, he sees a dozen huge steel tubs filled with corn.
Mr. Gomez, a corn farmer from rural Chiapas state in southeast Mexico, is looking at the newest in a chain of collectively owned tortilla plants and stores called “Nuestro Maiz” — Our Maize — that hopes to save an ailing industry by using only Mexican corn and giving profits back to the farmers.
“So many people have had to leave Mexico and look for work in the U.S. Maybe this can keep me on my land.”
Since the North American Free Trade Agreement liberalized commerce between the United States and Mexico a decade ago, an interesting trade pattern has emerged: growing quantities of cheap American corn cross the border southward, while increasing numbers of Mexicans corn farmers abandon their fields and cross the border northward, looking for work.
Today, nearly a third of corn consumed in Mexico comes from the United States.
Since 1994, according to new data from Oxfam International, Mexican corn prices have fallen by more than 70 percent. Meanwhile, the government in Mexico City estimates that 400,000 of this country’s farmers leave their land every year, many of them young men seeking work in the United States.
It’s not just corn, of course. Since NAFTA went into effect, Mexican agriculture has been consistently undersold by highly efficient, heavily subsidized U.S. imports. It’s been disastrous for the country’s bean, chicken, pig and coffee farmers.
But nothing has been hit harder than corn, or resonates so deeply in the Mexican soul. For 10,000 years, the inhabitants of Mexico have based their diets and their lives around this grain. Pre-Colombian Indians worshipped a god of corn; today, most Mexicans eat corn at every meal. Now Mexican corn and the 15 million Mexicans who depend on it economically are in crisis.
“Continuing to produce in the current market simply isn’t possible,” said Armando Joffre, director general of Nuestro Maiz. “If we don’t do something, Mexico will just stop growing corn altogether.”
Nuestro Maiz, which will have 24 plants and 130 tortilla stores by year’s end, is doing something, as were the hundreds of farmers from Veracruz state who marched naked to Mexico City this year to demand agricultural-policy change. Also demanding agricultural reform are the Greenpeace protesters who last month, for seven hours, prevented a freight train loaded with 132 tons of U.S.-grown corn from crossing the border.
Throughout Mexico, resistance to free trade has been growing over the past year. It seems to be having an impact.
Months of protest led President Vicente Fox to forge an agricultural accord this spring with Mexico’s farmers, calling for the renegotiation of NAFTA, including removing white corn from the unrestricted-trade list.
The increasing outcry over the appearance of genetically modified U.S. corn in Mexico — Greenpeace estimates that 25 percent of imported corn is transgenic — led Mexico to recently sign and ratify an international accord giving nations the right to refuse transgenic foods.
And starting tomorrow in Cancun, host Mexico is expected to play a leading role in pushing for new agricultural policy at the Fourth World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference.
But far-bigger changes are in order, says Simon Ticehurst of Oxfam, which last month issued a report claiming that the $10 billion in subsidies given to U.S. corn farmers leads to dumping of the U.S. corn exports to Mexico at prices between $105 million and $145 million below cost. This, according to Mr. Ticehurst, is why Mexicans can no longer afford to produce their own corn.
“We hope for an end to all subsidies leading to dumping everywhere,” said Mr. Ticehurst. “Mexican corn farmers aren’t competing against U.S. farmers. They’re competing against the richest treasury in the world.”
Mexican companies buying all that American corn couldn’t agree less.
“This is a business,” said Carlos Fernandez, head of logistics for MINSA, Mexico’s No. 2 grinder of corn flour, used for making tortillas. “There are times when it’s more convenient to buy Mexican corn, and there are times when it’s better to buy American corn. The product tastes the same.”
Indeed, some claim, the billions in U.S. subsidies are a boon to Mexico. “At the end, we’re helping Mexico’s poor by keeping the prices low,” Lloyd Day, a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman, said recently. The USDA says Mexican agricultural exports to the United States have grown considerably under NAFTA.
But with corn perhaps the most important Mexican export over the past 10 years, the difficulties inherent in trade between one nation with a $10 billion corn subsidy and another with $1 billion total budget for agriculture are hard to dismiss.
“It’s very sad that Mexican farmers can’t make their own food in their own country,” said Liza Covantes of Greenpeace Mexico. “Instead, they have to cross the border to make food in the U.S. that is then sold to Mexico.”