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The New York Times
February 26, 2002
In Corn's Cradle, U.S. Imports Bury Family Farms
By TIM WEINER
DATELINE: MANZANILLO, Mexico
For many generations, corn has been the sacred
center of civilization in Mexico, the place where the
grain was first cultivated some 5,000 years ago.
Gods and goddesses of corn filled the dreams and
visions of the great civilizations that rose and fell
here before the Spaniards came five centuries
ago. Today the corn tortilla is consumed at almost
every meal. Among the poor, sometimes it is the entire
But the modern world is closing in on the little
patch of maize, known as
the milpa, that has sustained millions of Mexicans
through the centuries. The powerful force of American
agribusiness, unleashed in Mexico by the
North American Free Trade Agreement, may doom the
growing of corn as a way of life for family farmers
here, agronomists and economists say.
Lorenzo Rebollo, a 53-year-old dirt farmer, works
two and a half acres of corn and beans here on the
slopes of the eastern state of Michoacan,
in Mexico's central highlands, where corn was first
grown as a food crop, archaeologists
say. Mr. Rebollo is one of about 3 million Mexicans
who farm corn and support roughly 15 million family
His grown sons have left for the United States to
make a living, and Mr.
Rebollo says he may be the last man to farm this
patch of earth. It is the same
story all over Mexico: thousands of farmers pulling
up stakes every year,
heading for Mexico City or the United States. Some
grew coffee or cut sugar cane. But most grew corn.
Roughly a quarter of the corn in Mexico is now
imported from the United
States. Men like Mr. Rebollo cannot compete against
the mechanized, subsidized
giants of American agriculture.
"Corn growing has basically collapsed in Mexico,"
Carlos Heredia Zubieta, an
economist and a member of Mexico's Congress, said in
a recent speech to an
American audience. "The flood of imports of basic
grains has ravaged the
countryside, so the corn growers are here instead of
working in the fields."
The facts are stark. Since Nafta took effect eight
years ago, imports of corn
to Mexico from the United States have increased
nearly eighteenfold, according
to the United States Department of Agriculture. The
imports will probably keep
growing for the next six years as the final phases of
Nafta take effect.
In the United States, corn growers receive billions
of dollars a year in
subsidies from Congress, much of it going to huge
agribusiness operations. That
policy fuels huge surpluses and pushes corn prices
Free trade and Mexico's own farm policies "threaten
the ability of Mexican farmers to continue to grow
corn," said Alejandro Nadal, a professor at the
Colegio de Mexico and the author of a study on the
In Mexico, Nafta did away with many traditional
subsidies and generous price supports. Some contend it
is doing away with small farmers. About 90 percent of
Mexico's corn farmers work fields of five acres or
less, and their survival instincts are driving them
farther and farther up Mexico's mountainsides as they
strive to grow enough to get by.
"We work the land all our lives," Mr. Rebollo said.
"But the farmers are growing more and getting less."
Under a slowly lifting ceiling, the United States
will be able to export all the corn it wants to
Mexico, duty free, by 2008. Nafta's drafters told
Mexico's farmers that as the ceiling lifted, the price
of corn in Mexico would
slowly fall toward United States and international
prices over the 15-year period.
But instead, prices plunged quickly, converging
with the free-market price by 1997. This was good news
for big companies in Mexico importing corn for animal
feed and processed food. But it was hard on the
farmers, who have little political clout under the
government of President Vicente Fox, an
The effect of American imports on Mexican
agriculture was not unforeseen."Integration into the
global economy will also accelerate the social
dislocation that rapid modernization inevitably brings
to a developing economy," Bernard Aronson, a former
assistant secretary of state for Latin American
affairs, wrote eight years ago as the trade pact took
But some things were not predicted. One unforeseen
result of the collapse of corn farming, Mr. Nadal
warns, will be the loss of genetically unique kinds of
corn. As imports grow and farmers give up their
fields, he said, ancient varieties like the succulent
blue corn used for tortillas may be
endangered. Some may already be lost, he said.
"If traditional growers abandon corn production --
as the Nafta strategy foresees -- then even more
significant genetic erosion will occur," he
The importation of bioengineered corn from the
United States is a separate
but heated issue. Mexico's government does not permit
the planting of
genetically modified corn. But the new modified
breeds can be imported as food or feed. The science
journal Nature and Mexico's government published
findings last year showing that bioengineered genes
from American imports have invaded ancient varieties
of corn in the state of Oaxaca.
Nafta has had demonstrable benefits for many
sectors of the Mexican economy that have become
competitive, and Mr. Fox says it is no longer
possible for the government to step in and assist
State legislators who want Mexico to protect its
corn the way Japan protects its rice have had no luck
swaying him. Mr. Fox's agriculture minister,
Javier Usabiaga -- a highly successful exporter known
as the Garlic King in Guanajuato, his home state as
well as Mr. Fox's -- says that a farmer who cannot
survive in the 21st century is simply "going to have
to find another job."
Farmers like Mr. Rebollo are regarded as artifacts
of an earlier, simpler age. "I have this little bit of
land, and I work it, and it's good
hard work," he said as he walked his fallow field.
"But I think when I go it will go too."
GRAPHIC: Photo: Lorenzo Rebollo, a farmer in
Manzanillo, Mexico, says he cannot compete with the
corn imported from the United States. "We work the
land all our lives," he said. "But the farmers are
growing more and getting less." (Lynsey Addario/Saba,
for The New York Times)
Chart: "KEEPING TRACK: Mexican Corn"
Corn exports from the United States to Mexico have
risen sharply in the last decade, while corn
production in Mexico leveled off.
Graph tracks U.S. exports and Mexican production
(million metric tons
of corn)from 1992-2000
(Sources: Secretary of Agriculture in Mexico; U.S.
Department of Agriculture)
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company