Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A follow-up on NAFTA and corn

A few months ago, I pointed to some items of interest regarding the negative effects of NAFTA on local Mexican farmers. Migra Matters recently had an interesting updated take on what's going on as NAFTA continues to decimate not only the family farmer but also encourages the destruction of biodiversity. The usual propaganda in the US press trumpets how "wonderful" NAFTA is, claiming it's a "win-win" for farmers and ranchers. However,
Mexican farmers cannot see NAFTA as a win. Not by a long shot. They recognize it as a disaster.
[T]he changes [brought by NAFTA] are deeply unpopular in Mexico, where farmers fear unrestricted imports will depress prices and stir competition in producing white corn, which has been grown since the Aztec times.

Most of Mexico's three million corn producers and half a million bean producers make a living on small farms that are a far cry from the sweeping, industrialized operations that characterize U.S. agriculture.

Corn tariffs have gradually been phased out since the trade deal was implemented, and imports of U.S. yellow corn to Mexico, mostly used in animal feed, have skyrocketed. They now account for close to 35 percent of Mexican consumption.
Some background:
*At the start of the year Mexico lifted 14 years of protection for corn, beans, milk and sugar under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that took effect in 1994. The regional trade pact groups Mexico, the United States and Canada.

* Mexican lawmakers demanded [on 1/4/08 that] President Felipe Calderon consider renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and meet with farmers, who fear a flood of cheap U.S. imports.

* "This is a national security issue," said Samuel Aguilar, of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, in a speech before the Congress. "The agricultural chapter of NAFTA could generate a social conflict." /snip

Mexico may lose as many as 350,000 farm jobs this year because of competition from the U.S.

* Some Mexican farmers say competing against highly subsidized U.S. goods could put thousands out of work on top of about 2 million Mexican farm jobs lost over the last decade.
NAFTA is a recipe for complete disaster in Mexico:
Timothy Wise, a professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, calls unblunted liberalization in those sensitive goods a "recipe for disaster" for those who depend on Mexico's vulnerable farm sector.

"Just as the U.S. became the largest supplier of animal feed, it has the capacity to become a dominant supplier of dry beans and white corn, undermining markets in Mexico and creating a dependence on external sources for the two very clear main staple foods," he said.
Of course, this economic disaster will lead directly to the displacement of small, Mexican farmers, and act as an incentive to those farmers' forced migration to the US. In short: NAFTA's destroying Mexican subsistence farmers and forcing them through economic pressure to leave failing, subsistence farms and enter the US. I've discussed this before here and here.
Not only are the family farmers increasingly consigned to the status of the permanently displaced, but NAFTA is setting the stage for an ecological catastrophe:
NAFTA will have a gigantic, negative biodiversity impact. There are two primary kinds of corn grown in the US, white and yellow. Yellow is mostly animal food. And in the US, unlike Mexico, corn is a genetically modified crop. "In the US, by 2006 89% of the planted area of soybeans, 83 percent of cotton, and 61 percent maize was genetically modified varieties." source. Even before the end of NAFTA, genetically modified corn presented a problem in Mexico:
Rural and urban activists throughout the Americas are calling on grain exporters, the biotech industry, and the US and Canadian governments to stop dumping untested and unlabeled genetically engineered corn on Mexico and other nations, where irreplaceable corn varieties are being damaged by "genetic pollution." In Mexico researchers have detected widespread contamination of traditional varieties of corn, caused by surreptitious imports of genetically engineered corn into Mexico by grain export giants such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill
source

And now, there is even greater reason to be concerned:
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.
So what's the big deal? It's fairly simple: GMO corn threatens non-GMO corn species, undermining bio-diversity.
[S]some farmers worry that introducing 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.
source.

So to make a long story short, not only will NAFTA destroy Mexican subsistence farming and contribute to migration from Mexico to the US for former subsistence farmers, it also will endanger the bio diversity of corn in Mexico (if not the entire hemisphere).
Think about what a loss of biodiversity means. You end up with far fewer strains of the plants you're harvesting, which means that in the event of some disease that wipes out one or more of those limited strains of plant, a lot of folks are going to starve, to put it bluntly. I'm sure the wonks from these corporations will try to assure the rest of us that they've got all sorts of lovely chemicals that will prevent that from ever happening, but I wouldn't bet on it. Heck, as the petroleum-fueled "green revolution" draws to a close in the post-peak-oil era, the availability of said chemicals will be questionable (as will the viability of the massive corporate farming enterprises) over the long haul. Expect famine, probably sooner rather than later.

Rather than being a win-win, NAFTA over the long haul is more like a lose-lose, outside of a small handful of corporate executives betting the future of humanity on their expected short-term profit margins.

What to do? I've been saying that we need to kill NAFTA before it kills Mexican corn. I'll keep saying it again, and again - as often as necessary.

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