October 26, 2012 | Americas Program Economy and Finance
Food crisis: The fight for corn
In an era of food crisis, the fight for corn has intensified, and the importance of this grain—a staple in the Mexican diet and a large part of the world—has been revealed to the fullest extent. The scenario we are faced with is a battle between a culture that revolves around the material and symbolic production of corn, as well as the cultural, social and historical value placed upon this crop by humankind, and the network of commercial and political interests that sees this prodigious crop simply as another way to increase power and profit by means of plundering its native lands.
Corn is under imperialistic attack in its place of origin, primarily at the hands of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has increased Mexico’s food dependency. A popular resistance stands in opposition to this assault, playing its role in a geostrategic struggle exacerbated by climatic imbalances caused by global warming, as well as the corruption of the agroindustrial production model.
Why does corn attract transnational companies? Because it is the most efficient producer of biomass of any grain. One can get an idea of the efficiency of the corn plant by comparing it with that of wheat. One grain of wheat will produce one slender spike while one grain of corn will produce two robust ears. The yield per hectare of corn can be double that of wheat. Annual corn production worldwide is more than 850 million tons.
In contrast to the other cereals, there are different varieties of corn for almost any climate, from valleys to mountains, and for almost any type of soil. Its cycle is short, and rural families have created simple methods for storing it, preserving it and preparing it.
Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz acutely observed that the invention of corn by the Mexicans is only comparable to the invention of fire by the early humans. From the inedible grass of the teocintle or teosinte, ancient Mexicans created modern corn, which was spread across Mesoamerica and eventually around the world. The 60 or so breeds and the thousands of different varieties native to Mexico act as a genetic reservoir and a crucially important strategic good in terms of the global food supply and economy, the worth of which can be expressed on a scale of billions of dollars each year. Corn has become the livelihood of families in rural communities as well as an accessible food source for poor urban families (corn makes up 60 percent of Mexicans’ caloric intake). It is also a fundamental raw material for livestock and the global food industry due to its versatility and large number of byproducts and applications.
Corn is both a product and a means of support in the history and popular culture of Mexico. Both the history of the grain and the history of the people are intertwined to such an extent that correlations between price curves for corn and the vicissitudes of Mexican politics and economy have been documented from the 18th to the early 19th century. The rise of corn prices, for example, resulted in poverty, food shortages, famine, epidemics, emigration, unemployment, crime, and begging. This turmoil generated the social tension that led to the outbreak of the War for Independence.
Today, corn is Mexico’s most important crop. It makes up a little more than half of the area sown and represents 30 percent of the total production value. Mexico is the fifth largest corn producer in the world, yielding around 21 million tons per year. However, Mexico imports almost 10 million tons annually—a third of what it consumes. The other primary producers of corn in order of importance are the United States, China, Brazil and Argentina.
Because of its unique qualities, corn quickly became a coveted good and was introduced to the market with a clear tendency toward privatization. The crop’s transformation from a communal resource to an economic good has been made possible by means of a global strategy with three blocks meant to shut off the route to rural self-sufficiency through local food production.
The first block is the imposition of technology meant to appropriate the characteristics of the corn seeds, as well as the traditional knowledge associated with them. The second block is the establishment of a legal framework that legalizes dispossession through registers, certificates and patents. The third block is agro-food policies that favor transnational companies and harm small and mid-sized producers. According to investigators Adelita San Vicente and Areli Carreón, “This is clear when we look at the earnings and the concentration of seed companies worldwide. Twenty years ago there were thousands of companies that sold seeds, the majority of which were small family-owned businesses. After decades of mergers and acquisitions, today only a handful of companies manage commercial seed, especially regarding the corn and soy industry sectors. In the case of corn, four companies—Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, and Dow—control more than three quarters of the market, excluding China. These same companies own the majority of the agro-biotechnological patents.”
The global importance of corn explains the interest that transnational companies have in controlling the crop in its place of origin and making it a private asset. These companies started out using hybrid varieties of corn associated with the use of chemical fertilizers and agro-toxins. They have now created transgenic corn, which puts the diversity of the native varieties at enormous risk. Once native crops are destroyed by genetic contamination, corn producers could find themselves defenseless against the climate crisis.
Less corn for more money
Even now, while the world suffers through the stampede of food prices (particularly the price of corn) and the climatic events in the United States, multinationals like Monsanto are rubbing their hands in anticipation of the profit to be made from high prices coupled with a high demand for the seeds. Climate changes in the United States have led to low expectations for the next corn harvest, which is already impacting grain prices and reverberating through other foods as well. The worst drought that the United States has seen in the last half century—caused by the highest temperatures on record—can be attributed to the climate crisis. A sixth of the corn harvest of the United States has been destroyed, prompting hyperinflation of food prices just as the financial and global energy crises have escalated.
The rise in corn prices and its repercussions on other foods stirred memories of the 2008 crisis which caused revolts in numerous countries and gave rise to the tortilla crisis in Mexico. The UN acted immediately to prevent a global food crisis. It urged governments to take “swift and coordinated action” in order to prevent rising food prices from creating a disaster that would have harmed millions of people by the end of that year.
Aside from corn, two other basic grains in the world food supply—wheat and soy—are rising in the inflation spiral. UN agencies assert that elevated prices of food are the symptom and not the disease, and argue that the root causes of the price crisis must be addressed. It is not exactly clear what this means, but from the rural perspective it would mean trading the agro-industrial production model for another based on food sovereignty, oriented toward the local markets at a time of growing demand for food and climate crisis.
The ongoing measures taken by many governments, however, do not point in this direction. According to data made public in the newspaper La Jornada from the Working Group on Foreign Trade Statistics, Mexico showed record-breaking corn imports during the first semester of 2012 in comparison to the same period of the previous year, when national corn production fell due to frosts and droughts. Imports were also at a record high with respect to the first half of 2007, when the tortilla crisis struck, and even compared to imports occurring during both the 2008 and 2009 lapses of the global financial crisis. According to the same source, in the first six months of 2012 1,931,000,000 dollars were spent on corn imports.
Mexico went from importing 396,000 tons of corn in 1992, before the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to 9.8 million tons during the 2011-2012 cycle. The measures put in place by NAFTA dismantled the institutions supporting agro-food production and generated conditions of even greater inequality among the member countries. Food dependency now represents almost 50 percent of what is consumed in Mexico, and the government recognizes the existence of 28 million people who are starving—20 million of whom live in the countryside.
The hunger that came from the North
“Hunger, hunger! Bark the dogs of Urique,” exclaimed the elderly people, repeating a fable from the Porfirian era. During that time, the region of the Tarahumara inhabited by the Rarámuri was held prisoner by famine and was the scene of precursory uprisings to the Revolution. Time has come full circle, and now that region of Chihuahua, in the north of Mexico, is suffering a humanitarian catastrophe due to a shortage of food that has been compared by the magazine Proceso to what is occurring in many African countries.
The current famine has brought hundreds of indigenous people to the hospital with acute malnutrition, the diseases derived from which have killed many of them. This is the most extreme manifestation of the consequences of the application of the free market economic model on rural areas. This model has dismantled institutions of credit, consumable goods, insurance, wholesale, and programs supporting rural production, creating a food shortage that is aggravated by climate change.
Last year, an atypical drought that lasted for more than 18 months devastated corn and bean harvests in the region, and temperatures near -20 degrees Celsius only made the problem worse. Twenty thousand tons of corn for self-consumption was lost. Of the 150 thousand tons of cereal that is produced commercially in Chihuahua, only 500 tons remained. Of the over 100 thousand tons of beans that are harvested each year, there were barely 20 thousand. The production of oats decreased by 80 percent. The lack of food affected a quarter of a million inhabitants of 4,478 rural and indigenous communities. But the problem did not stop there.
For the current spring-summer cycle, an insufficient harvest is anticipated. The Rarámuri, therefore, only planted four thousand of the 40 thousand hectares normally reserved for the production of basic grains, principally corn. Those who dared to plant did so with native seeds without ample humidity in some areas of Guachochi, Urique, and Batopilas.
Yet this is merely a warning of what is to come. The state of food emergency is not exclusive to the indigenous zones in the north of the country. It is spread throughout practically the entire rural area, as is shown by the food poverty figures mentioned above. The agricultural policies that have been imposed upon Mexican society for more than a quarter century have primarily benefited the transnational companies and a minority of large producers, at the expense of the majority of the population. The senselessness of the model that dismantled the mechanisms and institutions responsible for regulating the domestic market, only to present it on a silver platter to the transnational companies, highlights an absurd situation: while hunger is pervasive and the United States has announced a decrease in its corn harvests, Mexico is faced with the problem of marketing more than 1,200,000 tons of grain in Sinaloa and Jalisco due to the fact that the distributors have refused to pay the international price, breaking NAFTA rules that do not work in their favor. The transnational companies not only control marketing, but also most of the branches of agro-industry, including the production, storage and distribution of the seeds.
Monsanto and the companies that control the global transgenic seed market have made Mexican corn their preferred target because once they have conquered it, the transnationals could become the sole owners of this treasure worldwide.
Even before the Mexican government broke the moratorium on experimentation with transgenic corn in 2009, the corn had already been genetically contaminated in its place of origin. The study that presented this evidence was done by scientist Ignacio Chapela and published in the November 2001 issue of Nature. Chapela documented the presence of transgenic corn in Oaxaca, an area with one of the largest diversities of the grain. This fact was confirmed months later by Mexican researchers. Currently, almost half of the states in the country have reported the presence of transgenic contamination, and there is a widespread conviction that the contamination was caused intentionally. Whatever the case may be, it is a historic crime.
Transgenic corn does not increase yields, does not provide any consumer advantages, and does not carry any benefit for producers regarding input costs. However, if the commercial sowing of Monsanto corn is approved, the company could make a profit of close to 400 million dollars per year, according to Victor Suarez, president of the National Association of Commercial Field-Producer Companies.
This is why lobbyists for the United States-based company spare no efforts when it comes to investing some $5 million per year in order to influence politicians, journalists, scientists and community leaders. The company is also investing in its beachheads in the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at Irapuato and the Master Project of Mexican Corn, which is supported in part by the National Farm Worker Confederation.
The clandestine contamination—a vehicle of destruction of the Mexican rural economy—is a direct consequence of NAFTA. Unlabeled corn that continues to flow into the country from the United States is largely transgenic, and is introduced with the knowledge and consent of companies and officials without the least concern. These same entities and people confront public opinion, as well as those who reject the cultivation of transgenic corn, using a fait accompli strategy.
Mexican legislators approved the Monsanto Law (the Law on Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms) in 2004. As its nickname suggests, the law primarily favors transnational interests. This law opened the door for the cultivation of transgenic materials while failing to guarantee biosafety or protect native Mexican plants and their producers.
In the same vein, the Federal Seed Production, Certification, and Trade Law was approved in 2007, while the Federal Law on Plant Varieties has been in existence since 1996. The new legal framework was designed for the purpose of plundering, while laws that protect the rights of producers, farm workers and indigenous people—no matter how precariously—are being abolished or reformed.
In 2009 the federal government, betraying rural society yet again, broke the moratorium de facto that had stood for 11 years. The government subsequently began to grant permits for experimental sowing and transgenic corn pilots, and has brought the country to within one step of the commercial sowing of Monsanto corn.
The use of transgenic seeds has been added to agro-industrial production as a means of augmenting producers’ dependency, but at the same time it has sharpened those contradictions that indicate the deterioration of this model. The proven damages to the ecosystem and human health, the harmful effects on the climate caused by the use of petroleum in agricultural processes, and the emergence of super-plagues able to resist the poisons associated with transgenic seeds have sparked protests, embargoes and prohibitions. Monsanto corn MON16 has been expelled from eight different countries in the European Union, and around the world there has been a resurgence of organic production.
As has been shown by the Maize Defense Network, which is composed of more than one thousand communities and dozens of organizations in 22 Mexican states, “the cultivation of transgenic materials is an instrument of corporate abuse against the right to have access to healthy food and against small-scale, independent food production controlled by rural farm workers in countless corners of the globe (who provide the largest percentage of the world’s food supply). [The use of transgenic seeds] is a frontal attack on food sovereignty.”
The people’s fight for the corn
The Network, in line with movements such as “Without Corn there is no Country” and organizations like the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations (representative of La Via Campesina in North America), has organized campaigns to throw Monsanto and its Frankenstein seeds out of the country. The Maize Defense Network, however, has distinguished itself by declaring an emphatic moratorium over ten years against the invasion of transgenic corn. Rural farm workers know that the best defense of native corn is to plant it and care for the seeds by selecting them and interchanging them. They know that food sovereignty starts from below and that social and communal production of their own food is the best way to guarantee their right to eat.
They know or sense that the corporations and the governments of the dominant countries have used food as a geostrategic weapon, impeding the agricultural development of the subordinate countries by means of “free” trade agreements and agricultural mechanization controlled by companies like Monsanto. This serves the double purpose of maximizing profits while indefinitely maintaining the subjugation, in this case, of Mexican agriculture to the agricultural interests of the United States.
Before the commercial opening, corn had been protected by national agricultural policies and the corn used for human consumption was supplied in sufficient quantities for local production, particularly in communal or seasonal smallholder farms. Following the signing of NAFTA, the Mexican government removed support little by little for the majority of the field producers until it had finally abandoned them.
In a scenario that is just as complex as it is unfavorable, the Maize Defense Network and various other Mexican civil society organizations convinced the Permanent People’s Tribunal to conduct sessions in Mexico. The prosecution held the Mexican state responsible for the violence committed against the corn, food sovereignty and the rights of the people.
Supported by the moral standing of the Permanent People’s Tribunal, the rural inhabitants stand against NAFTA and its signatories because:
a) They have surrendered food production to transnational companies, making Mexico a dependent country.
b) The commercial opening to grains led to the loss of more than 10 million hectares of cultivated corn and the rural exodus of 15 million people.
c) They have endangered the way of life surrounding corn—the heart of Mesoamerican civilization.
d) They are responsible for a crime against humanity: the destruction of the genetic fortitude of one of the four pillars of the world’s diet.
At the same time, the most conscientious and organized rural farm workers have implemented resistance strategies, such as the establishment of transgenic-free zones, democratic unions and councils in defense of corn, networks of organic tianguis, corn festivals, communal germoplasm banks, communal food reserves, seed exchange fairs and other measures in defense of the rural lifestyle.
These are the people who have recreated biodiversity over many generations, and continue to be responsible for its preservation today. They are the direct heirs of the cultures that domesticated and developed corn. They are the people of the corn of the 21st century, and they are convinced that the voracity of transnational companies must not be allowed to usurp this thousand-year-old legacy.
Alfredo Acedo is Director of Social Communication and adviser to the National Union of Regional Organizations of Autonomous Small Farmers of Mexico and a contributor to the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.
Translation: Mac Layne