Some musings on maize

Mexico is the birthplace of corn. The crop was domesticated 8,000 years ago into one of the world’s most important food crops. Unfortunately since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, US corn has flooded Mexico at prices half of the cost to produce in Mexico. Now Mexico relies on imports for more than a third of its corn. Two million farmers have left agriculture because of this.

There were riots in the streets back in 2007 (I think) when people couldn’t afford their basic staple due to fluctuations in the price of US imports of the stuff. How crazy is that?

Agriculture is rife with market failures such as these – where the end price does not reflect the real economic value of what goes into a product. In the US, for example, environmental costs are high. Corn is one of the most polluting crops of all – excessive chemical use, run-off of fertiliser into waterways, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico are all unhappy effects of production. Producers and traders pay virtually none of these costs, and the price of corn coming into Mexico does not reflect them at all. Thus corn is sold at cheaper prices than locals can match, at least until there is a shortage that is. Then prices can rise at alarming rates and people start to get hungry, and angry.

On the Mexican side in contrast many small producers are working hard to maintain biodiversity – saving indiginous varieties and taking care of the land that produces them. But these positive contributions go unnoticed by the great market mechanism – it has no value in the marketplace. Yet these corn seeds are the building blocks for future varieties of corn – ones that will withstand climate change, deal with pesticide resistance, and so on.

One of the ancient civilisations of Mexico, the Maya, believed that people were formed at the beginning of time from corn dough, or masa. An indication of just how revered the crop is. There are reportedly more than 700 dishes in Mexico that use corn as a base. Now there are thousands of varieties of corn grown here, adapted to diverse growing conditions throughout the vast country. However, the risks of genetic contamination are high as companies like Monsanto make inroads in cultivation.

Maize is widely cultivated throughout the world, and a greater weight of maize is produced each year than any other grain. The United States produces 40% of the world’s harvest, and of this 85% of the crop is genetically modified.

Chiapas, our last stop in Mexico, has just 3% of the Mexican population but produces 13% of the country’s corn. Many growers are small farmers with modest patches of land, unable to compete on a global marketplace with the likes of Monsanto.

There are many NGOs working with farmers, such as Via Campesina. For every farmer that receives help, however, there must be many more whose plight goes unnoticed by the corn-munching world.

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