Notes on Corn: Part 2

Or, How the industrial food system has damaged peasant identity and culture.

I wrote last week about the impact of the industrial food complex on maize diversity.  It sounds like it would be a really dull subject, but it’s really not – not when you think about the implications of future loss, and the history attached to what has already gone.  At least, that’s something that I find interesting…

Anyway, today I wanted to extend that further, to the affect that the neoliberalisation (shhh!  It’s a word!) of agriculture has had on farmers and peasants.

Image from CIMMYT


As a result of free trade agreements such as NAFTA, farmers in the developing world have missed out on the financial prosperity of their northern compatriots, instead dealing with outcomes such as damage to food security and self-sufficiency, and loss of social identity. In order for many developing nations to obtain loans from organisations like the World Bank and the IMF, or to become members of the World Trade Organisation, they are required to make structural adjustments, meaning that these countries governments are often required to remove protections to their domestic producers, including import protections and subsidies.  In Mexico, government institutions were restructured to facilitate their farmers entry into global trade markets, including the elimination of subsidies and  reducing small farmers access to government credit .  At the same time, free trade has not required the discontinuation of subsidies in developed nations and, as such, subsidies have encouraged farmers in those countries to farm intensively, leading to overproduction (and pollution and erosion – another story altogether).   The opening of new markets under free trade agreements has thus allowed the ‘dumping’ of this excess product in developing nations at below the cost of production – the United States exports corn to other countries at 20 percent below the cost of production –  undercutting prices and driving many smaller farmers off their land as they are no longer able to compete. In turn, this has resulted in significant depeasantisation – more than 15 million peasants had already left rural areas of Mexico by 2002 (for comparison, that would be like three quarters of the population of Australia leaving the country, i.e. an enormous number of people) –  and the undermining of subsistence farming which has traditionally been the main means of providing nutrition.  Often, those farmers who do retain their land are also affected by trade liberalisation, drawn into contract-farming arrangements for large multinational agribusinesses.  This can be understood as a contributor to both peasant displacement and food insecurity, as farmers lose the ability to grow their own food and are sometimes forced to exploit the land beyond its means.  As a result, it has been suggests that the regulations of free trade agreements have therefore left some countries without ‘sufficient productive capacity’ to feed their populations and has made them dependent on imports, which further undermines food security.  The subsidisation of corn and resulting cheap goods in the supermarkets of developed countries, have come at the expense, not only of prosperity in the developing world, but also of food and land security.

Peasant identity has also suffered as the result of the impact of trade liberalisation on Mexican corn production.  In Mexico, corn has a dual identity, as food, but also as a national signifier and identity, particularly for farmers and peasants. One Mexican researcher, Silvia Ribeiro describes it,  ‘Maize in Mexico is much more than a crop. It is a central element in rural and urban culinary habits and lies at the heart of the history and the daily lives of the peoples of Mexico […] For indigenous and peasant peoples, it is the basis for their identity and for their autonomy’ (Ribeiro 2004).  The loss of identity has in fact been the biggest driver of movements against agricultural trade liberalisation – hardly that surprising when you think about it…

I’m going to leave it there for now, but I’ll rattle on about some of these movements later this week.  To  me, they’re the most interesting and exciting part of global agriculture – they show that everything is always fluid and that all people can make changes, if those changes are important enough to them.  And that’s pretty amazing.



One thought on “Notes on Corn: Part 2

  1. Pingback: 2014: Year of Family Farming | eek.ology

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