NAFTA and Food in Mexico
Online Publication Date: 02 May 2013
April 2013By Dawn Paley
Third World Network
Even in the quiet of
late afternoon, the market down the street from my apartment in Mexico City is
a hive of activity. Dozens of butchers cut up all kinds of meat and make
sausages. Women display whole chickens, and offer to prepare them according to
what a passing customer desires.
There's homemade ice
cream for sale across from a fish stand, and a tortilla stand that always seems
to have a line-up. I buy my vegetables from a man who stands at the top of a
pyramid of lettuces, tomatoes, avocados, carrots, potatoes, and whatever
happens to be in season. While he weighs and bags the veggies I select, he
often talks about how good Mexican food is, but how so many people don't eat
the healthy and tasty things he offers for sale. Before I started working on this
story, I assumed he was just talking up his business.
As I began to research
for this article, I realized something: he's right.
People's diets in
Mexico have changed drastically over the past decades, in tandem with the
transformation of the country's agricultural sector spurred by the North
America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1994.
According to Simon
Fraser University professor Gerardo Otero, in 1985 Mexicans were consuming more
food than Canadians on a per capita basis.
From the mid-1980s on, ''Canada
started to surpass Mexico on a per capita intake of calories, and then the
composition completely changed, Mexicans stayed with a very flat consumption of
fruits and vegetables, Canadians and Americans started to increase fairly
dramatically the intake of fruit and vegetables,'' Otero told Watershed
Sentinel. ''The other interesting trend is that Mexicans started to consume a
lot more meat... It's a type of North American diet that is becoming generalized
throughout the world actually, I mean if you look at figures in many, many
countries in the world, that kind of diet based on milk and meat is being
generalized.''By 2009, for example, canola oil (used primarily in fast food and
frying) was Canada's single largest export product to Mexico. ''If you want to
know what are the sources of obesity, that's where you should go,'' said Otero,
who is currently preparing a paper on what he calls the ''neoliberal diet.''
Mexico's obesity rate
is one of the highest in the world, and is climbing with every soft drink
consumed. According to The Economist, in Mexico, ''Diabetes is the top cause of
hospital admission after childbirth, and the second-biggest cause of death.''
NAFTA's Shock to the
But the changes to the
farming sector unleashed by NAFTA represent more than a trend of people eating
hamburgers and fries instead of tacos and drinking Pepsi instead of a
traditional Jamaica juice. Along with changes in Mexico's food system, NAFTA
has caused a series of shocks to the Mexican countryside, forcing many farm
workers to abandon their lands and look for work in cities or in the US or
elsewhere. It has turned Mexico into a food dependent country, which is no
longer able to feed its population without imports.
''NAFTA marked a
breaking point... NAFTA privileged commercial agriculture, and small farmers
were basically abandoned,'' Jose Herrera Vizcarra, an advisor with the
Cardenista Peasant Union in Mexico City, told Watershed Sentinel.
NAFTA was preceded by
legislative changes allowing for the privatization of collectively-owned land.
It also resulted in radical cuts to subsidies and loans for farmers and other
supports in seeds, technical assistance, marketing and pricing that the state
once provided. The last protections for agricultural products under NAFTA,
which were applied to corn and beans, were dropped in 2008. On January 31st of
that year, over 200,000 people marched in Mexico City against NAFTA's final
blow to Mexican farmers. Renegotiating NAFTA is a key tenet of those pushing to
regain food sovereignty in Mexico.
''NAFTA created a
disloyal competition, because the United States and Canada continued to
subsidize agricultural producers, and we pulled the subsidies,'' said Herrera,
who has worked in Mexico's agricultural sector for over 30 years. ''It became
impossible for small and medium producers to compete with producers from Canada
and United States.''
No Profit in Farming
in Mexico chalk in much lower than they do in Canada, which according to a 2005
estimate provided $3.7 billion to farmers, and the US, which paid out $19.1
billion in the same year.
Mexican farmers, the
majority of whom farm plots smaller than five hectares, receive between $78 and
$102 per hectare per harvest cycle in government support, according to Herrera. ''The peasants are often so poor that what they receive from [PROCAMPO, the
federal assistance program for farmers], they use to satisfy their basic
consumption needs,'' he said.
A 2011 study showed
that for small farmers in Mexico to produce a kilogram of corn it cost $3.72,
compared to $1.67 per kilo in commercial farms.
Both groups sell their
product at a loss and rely on state support and other income to survive. ''I
have a hectare that's maybe a quarter planted, and it gives me a ton (of corn
per harvest),'' said Pedro Viafuerte, who has land in Mexico State, but who
works as a custodian in Mexico City in order to earn an income. ''We use it for
our personal consumption... and to fatten our livestock, because it doesn't fetch
the price it should.''
Because it is so
difficult to turn a profit growing traditional foods, according to a report
published by the Agriculture, Society and Development journal last year, most
Mexican peasants no longer grow corn and beans as a means of economic survival.
Instead, ''most of the production that peasants obtain from their land plots
(maize, beans, kidney beans, etc.) is for self-consumption... the greater part
of monetary income is obtained from other activities linked to the land (fruit,
flower or vegetable production) or of another type (commerce, paid work in
factories or construction in Mexico or the USA).''
Not only did NAFTA
usher a flood of lower-priced staple foods into Mexico and increase migration
away from rural areas, it also opened the door to a massive expansion in the
mining sector. Canadian companies dominate this sector, making up the majority
of foreign mining companies in the country.
Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver has been at the centre of a deadly split between
townspeople who are for and against the mine. I had the chance to meet Bernardo
Vasquez, a prominent community activist and budding avocado farmer, before he
was killed in March, 2012. He explained to me how the government of Oaxaca
claims his community - the rural Zapotec village of San Jose del Progreso - is
poor, but the people who live there have very basic needs and desires that could
be fulfilled if locals had better access to irrigation and fair supports from
''The government calls
us poor but we live well,'' said Vasquez. ''The people say 'we don't want
luxurious houses, or luxurious cars, we need water for our crops, we need
fuel,' that's all we want, we don't even need work. There's a lot of work! What
we don't have is someone to pay us for it.''
Vasquez was clear about
how people in his community need access to money in order to supplement the
crops they grow for sustenance. The mining company, he said, didn't bring
anything worthwhile to the table. Instead, it divided the community. ''We have
fields and lands, we have work, what we don't have is cash to get paid in, and
the company isn't giving us money, they'll give you chickens or little things
like that, which the people don't need,'' he told me in an interview in
About a month after our
interview, Vasquez was murdered when an unknown assailant shot up his car on
the road to San Jose Progreso. His cousin and brother, who were travelling with
him, were both wounded in the attack.
Instead of contributing
to improving the situation of rural farmers, mega-mining projects have time and
again exacerbated local conflicts and created long term environmental and water
Genetic Wealth of Corn
Regardless of the
difficulties they face, farmers make up 20% of Mexico's labour force, compared
with 2% in Canada and the US.
Small, medium, and
large farmers throughout Mexico harvest a total of just over 20 million
hectares of land each year, according to INEGI, the country's national
statistics agency. Almost eight million hectares of corn are planted in Mexico
every year, followed by pastures for ranching, sorghum, and beans. Mexico is
widely known as the birthplace of corn, over 52 races of corn grow here, some
of which may be uniquely suited to withstand the impacts of climate change.
That genetic wealth and
diversity of Mexican corn stocks, however, is also under threat. It has been
over 10 years since researchers began publishing peer-reviewed articles proving
that the DNA from genetically modified (GM) corn had begun mixing with
indigenous species of corn in remote mountain areas of Oaxaca. The fight
against genetically modified corn has been ongoing since the first evidence of
GM corn was discovered. Some say this corn was introduced in Mexico through aid
programs, where farmers were given corn seeds without being warned that they
were genetically modified seeds.
According to Greenpeace
Mexico, the world's largest agro-business outfits, like Monsanto, Pioneers, and
Dow Agribusiness, have put pressure on Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena
Nieto, to allow commercial planting and harvesting of genetically modified
corn. A recent action to keep up the pressure against genetically modified corn
saw tens of thousands march in Mexico City as well as a rotating hunger strike
under the enormous Angel of Independence Statue.
''We believe that the
only relation that we, as the growers, have with Mother Earth are the natural
seeds,'' hunger striker Francisco Jimenez Murillo told Democracy Now! ''We have
to remember that Mexico has 60 distinct varieties of corn that we have
cultivated over the last 10,000 years, and with this, we have fed the world. It
is a struggle for the life and health of our country.''
The struggle for food
sovereignty and health is one that is reflected in every facet of life in
Mexico. These days, markets like the one around the corner from where I live
face stiff competition from big box grocery stores popping up all over the
country. In 2011 alone, Wal-Mart opened one store a day in Mexico and Central
In the face of these
changes, some farmers organize against genetically modified seeds, others get
by, planting traditional crops, while still others have packed up and moved
away, mostly to the US, but others to Canada, where they work to earn
remittances for their families. The changes to Mexico's agricultural and food
systems over the past 30 years have been severe, but they are not irreversible. - Third World Network Features.
About the author: Dawn
Paley is an editor-member of the Media Co-op. She lives in Mexico where she is
at work on her first book.
The above article is
reproduced with permission from Watershed Sentinel, March/April 2013
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