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Food Sunday: Immigration and Corn

In a little over a week, I’m headed to Mexico. The Iowa of Mexico, as I’m starting to think of it. My trip begins in Guadalajara (OK, that’s more of the Chicago of Mexico than the Iowa) and then continues within the same state (Jalisco) to rural areas where primarily corn is grown. Corn, corn, and corn. (Here are some stats on the place.) In preparation for my trip, I’ve begun researching the impacts of NAFTA on Mexican corn producers. At a glance that might seem rather random to pick one industry – and one crop within that industry – to focus on.

But corn is more than just "a crop" to Mexicans (particularly to indigenous people in Mexico). To protest NAFTA recently, Mexicans said "Sin maiz, no hay pais" ("Without corn, there is no country.") Truly, corn is even more central to Mexican agriculture than it is to American agriculture. And unlike the U.S. where we export our corn, put it in our cars and soft drinks, and feed it to our animals, the Mexicans eat much of theirs in the form of tortillas and tamales. All in all, 8% of Mexicans (40% of Mexican farmers) depend on corn for their livelihood. (To put that in perspective, only about 2% of Americans farm, and even fewer grow corn.) A whopping 60% of cultivated land in Mexico is planted in corn. And very much unlike the U.S., some of those corn farmers are subsistence producers, growing just enough to feed their families throughout the course of the year.

As a sustainable food advocate in the U.S. I’ve come to hate corn. What could be more boring – and unhealthy for our people and our planet – than growing nothing but CORN on 30% of all cultivated land in the U.S.? But now, as a gardener, I am fascinated and infatuated with the corn I’ve planted in my own garden. I chose four varieties – Black Mexican Sweet Corn, Texas Honey June Sweet Corn, Cherokee Rainbow Popcorn, and Pennsylvania Butter-Flavored Popcorn. After planting them, I lost track of which one is which, but now I have corn stalks that are taller than me with a rainbow of different colored tassels and silks. And the "rainbow" corn truly comes in all colors of the rainbow. Well, maybe not green.

And as novel as that seems to me as an American, the number of varieties of Mexican corn exceeds anything we can imagine here in the U.S. These varieties have been carefully preserved and improved over millennia by each generation selecting and saving the best seeds, trading with neighbors, and planting again in the next season. If the world has a catastrophe – a new corn pest or disease perhaps – these Mexican varieties of corn are our insurance policy to find a variety with resistance (to the pest or disease, that is). Indeed, Mexican corn farmers perform an important and invaluable service to the entire world (especially considering that corn is one of the top staples worldwide).

So what DID NAFTA do to Mexican corn production? Well, the design of the treaty was essentially the Mexican government saying to its corn farmers: You’re fired! (Donald Trump-style). The U.S. produces corn "more efficiently" so therefore it would be better for Mexico – and the world – if they left the corn growing to us and their corn producers found something new to do. Grow watermelons for export, perhaps. Or tomatoes. Or go work in a factory.

The plan was to phase in the tariff-free corn imports over 15 years to give Mexican corn farmers time to adjust. But that plan was canceled. See, here’s what the writers of NAFTA thought would happen:

Step 1: Allow tariff-free cheap American corn into Mexico
Step 2: Corn prices go down
Step 3: Tortilla prices go down (everyone gets cheap food!)
Step 4: Corn farmers stop growing corn and go do something else

In 1994, Mexico was facing a rough economy. The Mexican government feared what would happen if inflation made tortilla prices go up and people couldn’t afford them. They were afraid they would have to subsidize tortillas. So instead of allowing a small quota of tariff-free corn in and then keeping the tariff in place for all corn over that amount, they just did away with the tariff completely. From January 1, 1994 on, Americans could sell all the corn they wanted in Mexico and pay zero tariffs. And they did. Mexico imported over 10 times more corn in 1994 than they did in 1993. And the imports have continued increasing to this day.

The Mexican government thought that by getting rid of the tariff entirely, they would keep tortilla prices from rising, then keep from subsidizing tortillas, and they would break even financially.

Here’s what DID happen:
Step 1: Allow tariff-free cheap American corn into Mexico
Step 2: Corn prices go down
Step 3: Tortilla prices go UP
Step 4: Corn farmers keep growing corn (and actually grow more of it)
Step 5: Government subsidizes tortillas.
Step 6: Tortilla prices go up more.

Oops. That wasn’t supposed to happen. (I’m sure you won’t be shocked to know that they didn’t consult too many subsistence corn farmers while writing NAFTA.)

So how did this happen? Well, the tortilla prices are easy to explain. Two companies have most of the tortilla market, so they had no incentive to pass their savings (from cheap corn) onto their consumers. And at least one of the companies wanted to finance an international expansion and they decided to do so on the backs of the Mexican people. So they jacked up the prices. The government subsidized tortillas by giving the subsidy checks directly to the tortilla companies… who pocketed that cash and continued gouging their customers all the same.

As for the corn farmers, well… in many places they didn’t have much else to do besides grow corn. There’s only so much demand for watermelons and tomatoes (and peppers, cantaloupes, bananas, citrus, coconuts, etc) in the U.S. and Mexican farmers compete with California, Florida, and Central and South America for that market. Some corn farmers probably switched to growing other crops. Some probably went to work in factories. Many just kept right on growing corn, now much more desperately than before because they are getting lower prices for each bushel they sell. Want an explanation for the increase in corn production? The farmers have to sell more corn to make the same amount of money now, and that’s what they are trying to do.

Want to know what Mexican farmers do when they can’t make ends meet growing corn (or growing something else or working in a factory or having any other job)? Immigrate to the U.S., legally or otherwise. Can you blame them?

This is only an abridged version of the story, and you can read more on my blog if you’d like (Part 1, Part 2). I plan to continue writing about this topic as I continue researching prior to my trip. Between July 19-30, I’ll be in Mexico and may not have internet while I’m there. Following the trip, you can expect a full report back from me!

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Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson