NAFTA, Mexican Corn and the Commons

What happens when a market-based agricultural juggernaut invades a 9,000-year-old system of commons-based maize production in Mexico? What are the on-the-ground consequences? How have the farmers using traditional agriculture responded? Journalist Peter Canby offers a stunning account of this saga in his well-reported piece in The Nation, “Retreat to Subsistence.” Highly recommended reading.

The modern part of this story starts in 1988, when a cadre of free marketeers within the Mexican government, led by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, decided to throw their lot in with the "free market." In a sense, it was understandable. The Mexican economy has long been beset by notorious corruption and inefficiency. It was thought that the NAFTA treaty with the U.S., which went into effect in 1994, would create millions of jobs, new industrial centers, and encourage rural villagers to move to cities, where they could get social services. The U.S. and multinational corporations were only too happy to encourage the Mexican government to adopt this vision since it would open the doors to cheap and plentiful labor right across the border.

The sixteen years since NAFTA shows how misguided this whole fantasy really was. It was based on the dangerous fictions that "labor" and "nature" are simple economic units of production: inert, fungible and responsive to "market signals" such as prices and wages. In fact, NAFTA was no blueprint for Mexican economic development. It not only did not provide protected spaces for domestic production, it ran roughshod over people's identities and local loyalties. As Canby writes, millions of Mexican farmers

consider growing corn more than an economic activity. It is something closer to a defining way of life. Since NAFTA, to the surprise of government planners in Mexico City, many indigenous farmers have in effect chosen to withdrawn from the national economy, some weaning themselves off expensive chemical fertilizers and subsisting on the corn they can grow, harvest and barter. Economists refer to this phenomenon as a "retreat to subsistence".

This, at least, has been the response of many indigenous communities and family farmers. Others have not had the courage of luck to retreat to subsistence. In Juarez, multinational corporations relocated about 100,000 jobs to China, where wages were one-quarter the already-low wages in Juarez. This disinvestment cleared the way for drug cartels to become the largest employer in the city and for violent crime to skyrocket.

Meanwhile, because NAFTA eliminated tariffs on corn imported from the United States, American corn quickly undercut local markets, driving an estimated 500,000 farmers from the land each year. About half of them, searching for a way to support their families, try to enter the U.S. illegally.

A Mexican economics professor, Alejandro Nadal, cannot fathom why the Mexican government essentially consented to dismantling the community-based corn economy in the country: "There were 3 million corn producers and five people per producer family. That's 15 million people. Then there were transporters and other attached industries -- 22 million people -- a quarter of the country's population. Before putting your corn sector into NAFTA, wouldn't you think about it twice? They government had no single study for why they put corn into NAFTA."

Astonishing as that is, the more significant story may be how genetically modified corn from the U.S. is threatening the integrity of maize cultivars that have been grown for thousands of years. Essentially, subsidized U.S. corn sold on international markets is making locally grown corn economically unsustainable.

The global market is subverting Mexican maize, which functions as a commons -- the interplay of community, ecosystem and crop over thousands of years. Canby writes:

In the Mexican countryside there are fifty-nine corn 'landraces,' distinct cultivars that have been carefully developed over millenniums by indigenous farmers for different attributes: growth at high altitudes, early or late maturation, the ability to withstand drought or heavy rain and utility for particular dishes or shamanic rituals.

Mexico's landrace corn is consumed locally, but because it benefits from 9,000 years of breeding for diverse conditions, it represents a reservoir of genetic adaptability that many consider essential to the future of the world's commercial crop.

American industrial farmers treat corn as a simple commodity that grows in the soil; not much thought is given to the local ecosystem, water supplies, climate, soil quality, etc. The corn seed is a simple genetic, biological "machine" whose output can always be manipulated with pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetic modification, goes the thinking. That's one reason that the genetic diversity of corn grown in the U.S. has narrowed down to seven inbred lines of seed -- a development that makes the U.S. corn crop highly vulnerable to pests and a potential collapse of the corn crop.

Once corn from the U.S. could flood Mexican markets, fears grew that this GMO corn would "pollute" the native cultivars that had been grown there for thousands of years. People worried that crop traits that had not evolved in that local context could harm their maize cultivars, other plants and the ecosystem.

And in fact, Zapotec farmers in Oaxaca began to detect "mutant plants" in the fields, a suspicion that was later confirmed by Professors Ignacio Chapela and David Quist of the University of California, Berkeley, in a controversial article in Nature magazine in 2001. Many indigenous peoples in Mexico have since mobilized to resist the genetic pollution of their maize.

It turns out that the notions of "efficiency" and "productivity" peddled by the agro-biotech companies and market economists are highly suspect. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, has pointed out that each bushel of industrial corn grown in the U.S. requires one-quarter to one-third of a gallon of oil for fuel, fertilizer and other applications, or about 50-plus gallons per acre. U.S. corn can only undercut local cultivars because it enjoys cheap oil and government subsidies. But rising prices of oil and chemical fertilizers that damage the land are calling narrow, market-based notions of productivity into question.

By contrast, the indigenous mode of maize cultivation is a more holistic, socially stable metric of productivity. It takes countless "externalities" and contextual conditions into account. Indigenous farmers over generations have learned how to diversify the genetic base of their crops by coaxing out specific characteristics that thrive in their biodiverse environment. As a result, Mexican maize is hardy capable of evolving as new pests and climatic conditions arise. Canby even cites how Mexican maize coexists with all sorts of "weeds," which apparently play some genetic role in the domestication of corn seeds.

One indigenous farmer put it this way: "The important thing is that we don't break the connection to the surrounding ecosystem. These fields are part of the natural system; they're not apart from it."

It is customary for westerners to think we should try to "improve upon" nature. But in the closing line of Canby's article, the indigenous farmer Jesus Leon Santos corrected this idea: "No, it's not a way of improving nature -- it's a way of getting closer to the processes of nature, getting as close as possible to what nature does."

Originally published by David Bollier at Onthecommons.org under a Creative Commons Attribution license.