PASS THE TORTILLA

Mexico 2014 | AGRICULTURE | FOCUS: CORN

Maize was first cultivated on the American continent around 8,000 years ago, and even though studies have yet to confirm the exact geographic point of origin, no Mexican would doubt that corn originated in their country.

Maize, according to the FAO Statistical Yearbook 2013, accounts for the largest volume cereal production in the world, exceeding wheat or rice. This is due not only to the adaptability of this seed and ability to grow it in a large variety of climatic and soil conditions, but also due to its widespread use as animal feed.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT), the world's total corn production exceeded 1 billion tons in 2013, but only around 22 million tons were produced in Mexico in its more than 60 different varieties. Today, the birth country of corn is only the seventh world producer after United States, China, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine and India; losing 3 positions in the ranking from the 4th place in 2007 and 2008.

Corn is not only the main staple food in Mexico, but also a cultural product and a traditional symbol of pride in the shape of tortillas, that we can find in the internationally well-know Mexican dishes such as tacos, burritos, enchiladas or quesadillas among others.

As significant as the cultural issue is the importance of corn as a source of income. Of the 4 million agricultural producers in Mexico, it is estimated that 3.2 million are cultivating maize, most of them using traditional methods in small farmlands. This number could be quadrupled if you take in account the number of Mexicans who could be, indirectly, dependent on corn for a living.

The popularity and appreciation of this product among its pioneers is such that the total output of the country is unable to meet the national demand. According to the latest data available (FAOSTATS 2011) Mexico imports over 9 million tons of corn with a value of close to $3 billion dollars. According to a recent report from Dutch company, Rabobank, the main countries exporting corn to Mexico in 2012 were United States, with 63% of the total imports, Brazil with 26% and South Africa with 11%.

In 1997, genetically modified (GM) corn was first cultivated in the United States and Canada, and is now planted in many countries around the globe. Inside Mexico though, growing GM corn for consumption has been illegal since that date; which is far from saying that Mexicans don't consume GM corn because, according Greenpeace research, 45% of the corn imported from the United States is genetically modified.

In mid-2013, 53 scientists and 22 organizations initiated a collective lawsuit and a campaign called “Sin maiz no hay país," or “Without corn there is no country" against growing transgenic corn in Mexico for experimental, pilot, or commercial uses. The verdict of the court came out at the end of the year with the issuing of a temporary injunction prohibiting any type of field trials on GM corn in Mexico.

Multinational companies operating in Mexico such as Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences among others, have been significantly impaired and have tried to address this issue either by appealing to the court, or by requesting the removal of the judge who banned the GM corn cultivation. At the time of print, the court has already received 72 legal challenges on this matter and the final decision has yet to come.

GM proponents argue that if the country could internally produce and commercialize GM corn, productivity would increase, the use of pesticides and fertilizers will lessen and the total demand could be satisfied by national production, cutting the country's dependence on imported corn. The Mexican Federation of Corn Farmers says that GM corn could boost yields by up to 15%. On the other side, detractors assert that GM corn threatens native corn, harms the environment and will not bring higher productivity or revenues for the majority of producers in Mexico, who are small-scale farmers without access to modern crop cultivation methods.

Nonetheless, the production of Mexico's main ingredient of their gastronomic culture may not be threatened by either GM proponents or supporters, but by Mexicans themselves. In fact, the Rabobank report states that corn for human consumption in Mexico has decreased 3% from 2008/09 to 2013/14 due to price increases, and will continue to do so over the coming decades as long as low purchasing power people keep substituting it for cheaper snacks and high purchasing power people for higher calorific products.