Worldwide, people are suffering the effects of skyrocketing food prices. Mexico - where over half the population are poor - is part of this global disaster that, according to the World Bank, has already impoverished an estimated 100 million people. As Frances Moore Lappé of Food First indicates, this is perhaps the largest human rights crisis in decades; however, it is altogether avoidable because it is the product of bad policy. Mexico's vulnerability and the impacts on its population are easily anticipated as the result of eroding Mexican food security under U.S.-backed trade liberalization and the legacy of policies in the U.S., such as the recently approved 2008 Farm Bill, that grant unfair advantages to large agricultural corporations and prioritize profit over the basic rights of people.
In January 2006, a Mexican consumer needed about $74 to purchase the items in a market basket, a selection of basic products necessary for survival. By April 2008, the same items cost about $117 - a staggering 58-percent increase in only 27 months. While food staples such as beans, rice, condensed milk, and eggs rose in price 79 to 114 percent over the course of 2007, there was only a 4.5-percent increase in wages.
The urgency of the issue is heard in the voice of a poor indigenous shopkeeper in Oaxaca: "I hope to God that prices come back down - there is no hope otherwise." She then lamented, "Another one from our family will have to emigrate to the U.S."
This is a crisis, however, that has been in the making for over two decades. Wages for Mexican workers lost 82-percent of their purchasing power since 1982, the year when trade liberalization, privatization, and market deregulation were first imposed on Mexico by the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund. The same IMF structural adjustment programs, in conjunction with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, plowed under Mexico's food security by mandating the privatization or dissolution of state-regulated grain reserves and price-support programs, sweeping reductions in farmer credit and subsidies, the deregulation of commodities markets, and the elimination of tariff and quota protections on imported agricultural products. These radical changes to Mexico's largely self-governed food system and the precipitous fall in real earning power, compounded by the dumping of U.S. agricultural commodities that were heavily subsidized under previous Farm Bills, made it utterly impossible for almost all Mexican small producers and most medium-size growers to maintain an internal market for their goods.
Mexicans can no longer produce the basic food their country needs, nor can they afford the products sold to them by U.S. agribusiness giants such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Twenty years of this "silent food crisis" have resulted in increased undocumented migration, rising crime, unplanned urbanization, and many more people trying to make their way in the informal economy - trends that are likely to amplify given current policy and the mounting issues affecting global food prices.
The new Farm Bill (approved in May), despite having been praised for domestic nutrition programs and financial support for small farms, maintains the unfair practice of designating the majority of its billions in subsidies to large agricultural conglomerates. As a result, large U.S. firms will keep the upper hand in setting the price for Mexican consumers.
Moreover, as it governs U.S. agricultural policy through 2012, the new law will continue subsidizing corn-based ethanol (now mandated to supplement every gallon of U.S. gasoline), furthering the trend of increased scarcity in corn - the main staple in the Mexican diet - and also raising the cost of other grains by diverting cropland for ethanol production. The World Bank recently stated in a leaked internal report that biofuel production accounts for 75 percent of the current rise in global food prices, a finding which brings further subsidization of corn-based ethanol into serious moral question.
The potential for windfall profits in the biofuel sector, combined with other factors such as the mass surge of unregulated investment coming out of the collapsed housing market, has created a bubble in agricultural commodities that is driving up prices. Rising costs of oil, which inflate fertilizer and transportation prices, as well as supply shortages due to overexploitation of groundwater and the devastation of harvests by floods and droughts, also contribute to the sudden, meteoric increases.
Having an integrated global food economy means that these alarming issues and their consequences hit the poor without restraint, and free market policy leaves little room to change local laws to safeguard people's economic rights. The food crisis many are confronting is the direct result of a failed U.S.-backed trade model and policies like the Farm Bill that rob Mexico - and many other impoverished countries - of their sovereignty in feeding their own people, potentially starving millions and distending people's need to migrate just to survive.
Robert M. Saper, originally from West Sunbury, PA, is a member of the Witness for Peace international team based in Oaxaca, Mexico; Witness for Peace is a Washington, DC, based non-profit organization that monitors and seeks to change U.S. military and economic policy in Latin America in support of peace, justice, and sustainable economies in the region. Robert and the WFP Mexico team can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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