Maize in Contemporary Mexico

Maize has been an integral part of Meso-American culture for over 10 000 years. Today there are a total of 59 varieties are native to Mexico, each with their own uses in approximately 600 different food preparations specific to certain varieties. Today, traditional agricultural varieties of maize, as well as agricultural practices are being replaced in favour of promises of high yield from new hybrid and transgenic seeds, and conservation techniques which are highly unsuitable for the rural Mexican context. With national demand for maize to reach 39 million tonnes per year by 2025, and corn prices remaining stubbornly high, Mexico must find a solution to their current deficit in corn production, or face ever rising food import bills from neighbouring USA, and a devastating loss of local culture.

Since Mexico opened up its borders to North American free trade in the 1990s, maize production has doubled, to approximately 23 million tonnes per year. However, a study by Timothy Wise in 2009 has estimated that despite this massive increase, Mexican maize farmers suffered an annual loss for maize farmers of $72 million between 1997 and 2005, as a result of an increase in imports of cheaper subsidised US yellow maize competing with traditional Mexican white maize. For Mexico’s 3 million white maize farmers, this has been a brutal blow. Imported US maize is supported by billion dollar subsidies, which allowed US farmers to sell maize bellow its production cost, forcing Mexican farmers to decrease prices, and accept the associated losses, undermining the integrity of maize production in Mexico.

Since the 1990s, Mexican import dependence has increased from 7% to 34% in 2010, which when coupled with rising food prices since the 2007 crisis and increased interest in biofuels, has put Mexico is an unfortunate position. On average Mexico spends $2.5 billion a year on yellow maize imports from the US (10 million tonnes), which represents not only a financial issue as import bills rise, but climate and cultural issues as well.

Rich biodiversity has been known to increase resilience to climate change, as crops are more adaptable. For a country like Mexico, which is believed to be particularly vulnerable to droughts and storms associated with extreme weather patterns, agricultural resilience is paramount. Additionally, traditional Mexican cuisine requires a variety of maize strains in order to survive. Moving forward demands respect for sustainable agriculture both ecologically, and socially – protecting the next generation’s access to valuable natural resources, and the rich biodiversity associated with Mexican culture.

Public investment in agricultural infrastructure and programs is direly needed to optimise Mexican maize production while minimising inputs of valuable water resources. Small to medium-scale farmers represent the highest potential for growth, with the possibility to almost double their yields, under the right conditions.

The government has seen positive results of an increased yield of 55 and 70%  have been recorded as result of a pilot project by the Strategic Project for High-Yield Maize (PROEMAR), founded in 2008. The project focused on cost effective measures to improve resource use, for example soil analysis to prevent over fertilisation, thus protecting water resources for eutrophication.

In addition, a return to traditional agricultural practices that are more suited to Mexico’s needs is widely viewed as positive step for maize prodcution, as well as cultural heritage. Milpa, for example, is a traditional agricultural practice that has shown positive results in increasing yield in small to medium scale farms, which are currently producing only 57% of their full potential. Milpa involves intercropping several crop varieties (maize, beans, squash, pepper, yuca etc) in order to preserve oil quality, and reduce vulnerability of run off and erosion associated with mono-cultivation. In fact, studies have shown that it takes 1.7 planted hectares planed in monoculture to produce the same amount of food as 1 hectare of intercropped land. Furthermore, diversifying crop plantations also serves to decrease Mexico’s vulnerability to climate affects.

It seems that that a best step forward for Mexico is perhaps returning to traditional methods.In combination with sustainable resource management and public investment, it is estimated that in 10 to 15 years Mexico will reach an annual production of 57 million tonnes. This means that Mexico will be able to meet national demand (expected to reach 39 million tonnes in 2025) while protecting cultural heritage around maize production, as well as consumption.

References:

Fernández, Antonio Turrent, Wise, Timothy A, and Garvery Elise 2013 Achieving Mexico’s Maize Potential
http://www.yale.edu/agrarianstudies/foodsovereignty/pprs/10_FernandezWiseGarvey_2013.pdf

Santini, Christina 2006 The People of the Corn.
http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/mexico/people-corn

Wise, Timothy A. 2012 The Cost to Mexico of U.S. Corn Ethanol Expansion
http://ase.tufts.edu/gdae/Pubs/wp/12-01WiseBiofuels.pdf


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