Food crisis: The fight for corn

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Corn is a big help during the food crisis.

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. (Shutterstock)

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.

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