While travelling in Mexico recently, I saw this sign in the zocalo in Puebla (sorry the photo is so dreadful – I only had my phone with me that day and it was a bright afternoon). It reminded me of research that I’d done recently on globalised agriculture and food sovereignty, mainly in relation to corn (with Mexico as the obvious case study). Over a few posts, I’d like to share with you some of that research, so that you can see why, while on an overseas holiday, I got excited about a sign about corn.
Introduction to Notes on Corn
Over the last hundred years, maize has been reimagined as a commodity rather than a foodstuff, changing the way in which it is grown, processed and traded. In 1999, Brewster Kneen described global trade agreements as ‘the deliberate restructuring of life in accordance with a narrow ideology and plan for extrinsic (corporate) purposes’ . A small number of organisations now control the global maize market including production, processing, transport and retailing. So, for example, Mexico’s National Union of Autonomous Regional Farmers’ Organizations (UNORCA), which represents food producers organizations in 27 Mexico states, contends that just 12 US, Mexican and transnational agro-food firms are NAFTA’s primary beneficiaries.
Arguably, beneficiaries have also been farmers and consumers in developed nations, where the potential uses for corn have expended wildly, creating the illusion of cheapness and choice. This prosperity, however, has come at the price of threats to maize biodiversity; erosion and pollution as a result of monoculture cropping; ‘dumping’ of excess produce on developing nations; depeasantisation; decreased food security and loss of social and cultural identity.
Notes on Corn: Diversity
The threat from trade liberalisation to in situ maize diversity has been described as ‘the most pressing issue facing Mexico in the post-NAFTA context’ (Keleman 2010). These threats include:
1) Agribusiness demands for high yields of a smaller variety of maize species, which has encouraged monoculture planting. Because the maize industry is so concentrated, production is now heavily influenced by demand for particular types of corn that are regularly used by food processors, for whom quantity, consistency and uniformity of grain is paramount. Farmers choices in the crops that they plant may be limited by these standards (see Keleman 2010). In addition to the threat that this poses directly to maize variety, in areas of intensive, large-scale agriculture, land is often deserted after only 40-50 years as it is no longer productive .
2) The growth of, and contamination from genetically modified crops. Insufficient regulation of imports (including seeds) is likely to have been one of the main causes of the contamination of Mexican maize by transgenic grain varieties in 2002, as the wholesale planting of genetically modified maize is still under a moratorium. Furthermore, the manner in which corn reproduces makes it very susceptible to the adoption of traits of new crop varieties which may then spread.
3) An influx of cheap maize from developed nations. Since the implementation of NAFTA, Mexico has become a net importer of corn from the United States, not because they are incapable of producing adequate amounts to be almost self-sufficient, but because of the ‘dumping’ of heavily subsidised, and therefore considerably cheaper, corn from north of the border. Between 1996-2004, imports of maize from the US to Mexico increased by 320 percent. The impact of this has been two pronged. Mexican maize landraces have been contaminated in some instances by genetically modified crops, and many farmers, no longer able to compete with low priced imports, have been driven from the land, usually to cities, or, ironically, across the northern border into the United States.
4) Social factors such as the displacement of rural populations and associated loss of knowledge. While the migration of farmers is an outcome in and of itself, it has also left in situ conservation of maize diversity in jeopardy. The maize diversity that exists in Mexico is substantially the result of the knowledge and practices of farmers who have bred the wide variety of species over hundreds of years. Concerningly, the poorest populations which are most likely to migrate internationally, have previously been the most likely to plant the most genetically diverse crops. Without their knowledge and input, and with the reduction of the number of farmers required in an industrial system, much of this diversity may be lost.
High-yield, genetically modified and identical varieties of corn have allowed food companies to produce consumer goods that are standardised and inexpensive at the supermarket. However, their overall cost is the threat to the biodiversity of maize species as a whole – and you know how I feel about the preservation of genetic resources.
(Part 2 will be on the impact of corn commodification on peasants identity and culture. Part 3 will talk about food sovereignty movements that have arisen as a result. I’ll also include a full reference list, for anyone else who wants to geek-out over this sort of thing. I’ve taken the embedded references out of this and tried to remove a bit of academic dryness as well, but if you’re curious about anything, please let me know!)