Cheap U.S. corn will flood into Mexico in January when trade barriers are lifted, pitting local farmers against each other over how to protect the crop that has fed Mexico for thousands of years.Mexico is to scrap import duties of U.S. corn on January 1, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in a move that will allow the world’s No. 1 producer to expand its market in the country that claims to have discovered corn.
Mexican growers are debating whether to turn to genetically modified strains of corn to resist the U.S. challenge, or to mechanize production but keep local corn strains GMO-free.
Either way, millions of Mexican farmers, many of them living just above subsistence, will struggle to compete with heavily subsidized U.S. corn despite high international corn prices.
“All the inequalities leave us unprepared for the opening,” said Carlos Salazar the head of a national corn growers’ association who works with farmers in the eastern town of San Salvador El Seco, where flat fields of corn and cactus stretch for miles below three snow-capped volcanoes.
Corn tariffs have gradually been phased out since the trade deal was implemented in 1994, and imports of yellow corn from the United States to Mexico have skyrocketed by about 240 percent compared to the decade before NAFTA. Mexico imported over 7 million metric tons of U.S. yellow corn in 2006.
Imported yellow corn, mostly used for animal feed, now accounts for close to 35 percent of local consumption and is likely to increase next year.
The biggest worry for Mexican farmers is that zero barriers could give U.S. producers incentives to grow more white corn, Mexico’s principal crop, which is used to make tortillas and other famed foods.
Those who want to introduce bioengineered corn in Mexico appear to be gaining an upper hand.
A law to allow experimental planting of GMO strains in northern Mexico was passed two years ago but was never signed. Agriculture Minister Alberto Cardenas said this week the law could go into effect in a matter of weeks.
“We don’t want to be behind. We have to start testing now,” said Catalino Flores, a geneticist working with Salazar’s organization in San Salvador El Seco.
Corn yields in the United States can be more than three times those in Mexico, according to Mexican growers.
“There will be drought resistant corn in 5 to 10 years. If you don’t plant something like that when everyone else is, you’ll be down the drain,” Flores said.
About half of U.S. yellow corn sent to Mexico comes from genetically modified seeds. Mexico’s agriculture minister reckons GMO seeds smuggled in from the United States are already being planted in northern Mexican states.
But some farmers worry introducing that GMO seeds could contaminate hundreds of wild blue, red and multicolored corn varieties planted for centuries in Mexico.
“The farmers who want to plant transgenic corn are irresponsible, they don’t care if the are putting the genetic heritage of Mexico at risk,” said Victor Suarez head of a small farmers’ group that wants keep trade protections for corn and beans.
The ancient Maya, who lived in southern Mexico over 1,000 years ago, believed the gods made men from maize. The plant was adopted over 500 years ago by Spanish conquerors and spread to the rest of the world.
However the debate plays out, the radical changes to the landscape of rural Mexico are already well underway.
Some 2 million farm jobs have been lost since NAFTA was signed, according to Mexico’s National Employment Survey. Many farmers around San Salvador El Seco have left the land and emigrated.
“Now we are saving a lot of time but we are also losing a lot of jobs,” said Martin Rodriguez, 57, marveling at a new machine recently brought to San Salvador El Seco that can harvest in one day what it would take a dozen workers two weeks to pick.