Editorials | Opinions | March 2008
|Must Mexico Be Self-Sufficient in Corn?|
Allan Wall - PVNN
"¡Sin maíz no hay país!" goes the slogan – Without corn there is no Mexico. It’s being used by activists who want to close the border to corn imports from the United States.
Mexico is no longer self-sufficient in corn production, and this is seen by many as an outrage. After all, corn (Zea mays, also known as maize) was domesticated here and has been cultivated for millennia. It was an important part of the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican civilization, and is still a staple food of contemporary Mexican society.
Is it a disaster then, that Mexico is not self-sufficient?
NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) gets a lot of the blame for Mexico's farm woes. Certainly Mexico ought to analyze NAFTA on its own merits. Nevertheless, many of Mexico's farm problems existed before the agreement ever went into effect.
The obsession with corn makes it hard for Mexicans to see the big picture.
Corn is not even Mexico’s biggest crop. Sugarcane is, though you don’t hear as much about it. Mexico produces more than twice the amount of sugar as corn. In fact, the sugarcane sector is on the verge of increasing its sugar exports to the U.S.A.
Nor is corn Mexico's most profitable crop. Acre for acre it’s more profitable for Mexican farmers to raise fruits, vegetables and flowers than corn. Mexico’s growing seasons give Mexico a comparative advantage in the production and exportation of fruits, vegetables and flowers.
Under NAFTA, Mexican production and exports of fruits and vegetables have skyrocketed. This fact too is seldom publicized, but it’s a major success story.
According to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), the exportation to the United States of Mexican fruits has increased 177 %, and vegetables 122%. And in the winter and spring, half the fresh vegetables are imported from Mexico.
Mexico is the world’s biggest producer of avocadoes, and it has replaced Chile as the biggest supplier to the U.S. It now controls 66% of the U.S. market. Within Mexico, the state of Michoacan is the biggest source of avocadoes. In Mexico, by the way, avocadoes are used as condiments on hamburguesas (hamburgers).
Mexico also provides 88% of the tomatoes in the United States, and it is the principal provider of watermelons, strawberries, onions, chili, lemons and papayas.
Rather than trumpeting this success and building on it, the emphasis among activists and the media is still on corn. But even the corn situation is a little more complicated than it’s being presented.
Since 1970, the acreage of Mexican farms producing corn has remained constant, at about 7.44 million hectares, or 17.4 million acres. (For Americans like myself, who think in English measures, one hectare equals 2.47 acres.)
Although corn acreage hasn't increased, production has. In 1970 the country produced 8.9 million tons, but Mexico now produces about 24 million tons, a lot more than back in 1970 with about the same acreage. And most of that increase occurred during NAFTA. It’s been a major increase in productivity.
Simultaneously, corn imports have quintupled. In the 1970s Mexico imported 2 million tons a year, now it’s about 10 million tons annually.
This bothers a lot of people who think Mexico should be self-sufficient in corn. But should it? Maybe the pride of producing corn is more important than profitable fruit and vegetable exports. But the public at least ought to be aware of the options.
There’s another aspect of the corn importation situation that’s seldom pointed out. Most of the corn Mexico produces is white corn, whereas most of what it imports from the U.S. is yellow corn, much of which is used to feed livestock and poultry.
That leads us to another ignored Mexican agricultural triumph.
Thanks in part to that imported corn, Mexico is now the fourth biggest producer of chickens and eggs in the world, and the sixth biggest pork producer. Is that bad?
The corn sector and corn activists, however, are much more politicized and vocal, so they get most of the publicity.
Should Mexico be self-sufficient in corn? Maybe, maybe not. But shouldn’t Mexican success stories and the whole range of farming possibilities be known, and debated? There is a whole lot more to Mexican agriculture than just the corn.
Allan Wall is an American citizen who has been teaching English in Mexico since 1991, and writing articles about various aspects of Mexico and Mexican society for the past decade. Some of these articles are about Mexico's political scene, history and culture, tourism, and Mexican emigration as viewed from south of the border, which you can read on his website at AllanWall.net.
Click HERE for more articles by Allan Wall.