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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Can the United States Dictate the Mexican Diet?

from the June 28, 2023 Bulletin

In the United States, most of us rarely think about corn until July 4 BBQ time! What significance does corn hold in México?


Corn originated in central México, where indigenous peoples domesticated corn over 8,000 years ago. They worshipped this staple food and humbly defined themselves as “the children of corn.” Scientists count over 60 distinct native corn species, and over 21,000 varieties have developed from these distinct species all around the country. Mexicans still have the battle cry: “Sin maíz, no hay país” — “Without corn, there is no country”!

Photo: benitosmexican.com

Maize still remains at the heart of the Mexican diet, providing an overarching share of the daily calorie and protein intake. In the West, we don’t think of corn as a protein source. But centuries ago Mexicans discovered a process called “nixtamalization.” By cooking corn with lime, corn flour — called masa — becomes easier to work with, more nutritious, and even tastes better!


NAFTA, the neoliberal free trade agreement, opened up México to US agribusinesses in 1994. What effect has NAFTA had on Mexican farmers?


Even before NAFTA, those farmers felt pressure from the US. The agronomist Norman Borlaug developed high-yield disease-resistant varieties of wheat in México in the 1960s, and that began what came to be called “the green revolution.” Similar innovation took place with corn, with the innovators claiming that the new “improved” varieties would stamp out world hunger.


These varieties, the argument went, would produce far more per acre than native plants, especially with fertilizers and chemical pesticides and herbicides spurring on their growth. “Green revolution” advocates encouraged México to abandon its own native varieties. They offered farmers what amounted to bribes —  like free fertilizer — to switch.


So NAFTA essentially marked more the culmination than the beginning of the neoliberal project. NAFTA removed protections for Mexican domestic agricultural production, and US corn exports to México quickly grew by 400 percent. The US also deregulated its own agricultural sector, and that led to a crisis of overproduction. To get rid of the resulting surplus, the US resorted to “agricultural dumping” and sold corn and wheat to México at 5 to 40 percent below what that corn and wheat cost to produce.


Big agricultural businesses could outlast all these crises. Small farmers could not. So what ended up getting stamped out turned out to be not hunger and poverty but small farmers.


Before NAFTA, México only imported 7 percent of México’s corn. That share has now jumped to 38 percent, mostly yellow corn used for livestock feed. This in turn has caused a huge expansion of the livestock sector and taken land out of crop production. In effect, the United States exported the factory farm model to México. Joint ventures by US multinationals have now changed the agricultural landscape.


Did NAFTA affect the Mexican diet?


The corn flour products that have flooded into Mexican stores all carry less nutritional value than México’s native nixtamalized corn. The western system of mono cropping, by depleting the soil and replacing lost nutrients with chemical fertilizers, also undermines the production of healthy food staples.

Traditional Mexican farmers didn’t use artificial means to spur plant growth or inhibit pests and disease. The milpa system indigenous farmers developed centuries ago kept corn, beans, and squash together. These “three sisters” kept the soil healthy year after year. With that system diminished, the “NAFTA diet” of imported processed foods replaced the balanced milpa diet. 


Junk foods, full of empty calories, became the new staples. México would become the #1 country in the world for childhood obesity.


US businesses also brought in GM — genetically modified — corn, but farmers pushed back. They filed suit to stop GM cultivation by seed giants like Monsanto and Syngenta. The farmers highlighted the need to protect maize biodiversity from GM pollen contamination. 


These farmers, as one explained to me, would bring two kinds of tortillas to the hearings on their lawsuit, one store-bought and one made from native corn. They would ask the judges to, well, “judge”! They made taste an argument! In 2013, after more than 60 appeals, they went on to win a key injunction against the GM corn.


What did the PRI government then in power do in response? Has the current Morena government responded differently?


The PRI governments abandoned farmers and consumers. AMLO, on the other hand, promised during his 2018 campaign that “we are going to produce in México what we consume.” He has asserted México’s right to “food sovereignty,” a concept that encompasses more than “food security.” Just security alone doesn’t take into account the agency of the people food policy impacts. Food sovereignty gives a community, a nation, the right to determine how it feeds its people.

In December 2020, AMLO announced that México was placing restrictions on GM corn imports and on the herbicide glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Round-Up. This chemical has been found to be a probable human carcinogen.


The US just filed a complaint against these restrictions on GM corn. Could México lose this case and have to pay billions in fines?


México does have the right to restrict products harmful to its people’s health, but the US trade representatives claim that México has not proven that GM corn causes harm. México retorts that the burden of proof should be on the US companies to prove GM corn’s safety.

In the meantime, at a recent webinar hosted by the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology, presentations made a strong case for México’s precautions. In 90 percent of imported tortillas, investigators have found traces of toxic chemicals and transgenics. Some 23 percent of newborns carry traces of these substances in their bodies. Researchers have found links to liver and kidney disorders, among other health impacts.


The agility of the Mexican government in handling this issue has amazed me. Mexican officials have been bold and firm in their defense of their nation’s sovereignty, but they’ve avoided directly violating the current USMCA trade agreement.


Rather than phasing out all GM corn as originally proposed, AMLO chose to only restrict white corn used for human consumption, a small percentage of the corn imports, a move that meant that US exporters would not be affected to any significant degree. But the US still didn’t buy the Mexican position and went ahead with a formal complaint.

This fight comes down more to ideology than either trade or science. The US is saying, “We can’t let you set the example of being able to stand up to us and call our products unhealthy!” That would reverse decades of letting businesses like Monsanto push their products onto countries of the global South, with disastrous consequences for those countries and enormous profits for the companies.

Mexicos Agriculture Minister Víctor Manuel
Villalobos Ar
ámbula at a Mexico native corn event 

Your research represents a concrete act of solidarity with the Mexican people!


I began researching and writing about NAFTA and agriculture thirty years ago. At that time, none of the three NAFTA governments had any interest in changing their policies. But now one government does want those policies to change! My research on the impact of neoliberal policies on farming and the future of food has helped México move toward food sovereignty, and I find that really gratifying.