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Chiapas Article

Mexicans fear invasion by U.S. corn tortillas for health, economics
Wiebke Hollersen, DPA - 11/3/2002

Shortly before lunchtime in Mexico, the scent of freshly baked tortillas seeps through the air. It is unavoidable to even the most insensitive noses.

Street vendors, cafes and restaurants peddle the tacos on just about every corner of nearly every city. Cooks fill the corn or flour tortillas with beans and cheese. Those who can afford it often request meat, while the poor stick to beans.

Whether rich or poor, the tortilla serves as a key component of several other Mexican dishes, including quesadillas, tostadas and enchiladas.

But critics say this nutritious staple of the Mexican diet has become less "Mexican" and more foreign, and is increasingly threatened by the import of cheaper corn from the United States and increasing amounts of imported beef. The concern comes not just from people worried about domestic farmers, but also from nutritionists worried about increasing quantities of genetically altered corn entering the Mexican diet.

Tortillas are typically made from flour, or, as preferred by most Mexicans, from corn. The average Mexican eats about 10 corn tortillas per day, which translates into more than 3,600 annually.

Nutritionists give the Mexican diet high marks, saying it includes about 80 percent of all nutrients the body requires on a daily basis.

In 2001, Mexican farmers produced 18 million tons of corn, but 3 million tons were left unused. At the same time, Mexico imported 6 million tons of U.S. corn. And one of every three corn tortillas was made out of the imported corn, the popular magazine Cambio reported.

American corn is 40 percent cheaper than the homegrown product because the U.S. government subsidizes corn production. The situation, in fact, reflects the growing complaint of developing countries who charge that a major source of economic development - export crops - is curtailed by competition from the subsidized crops growing in developed countries not only in the Americas but also in Europe and elsewhere.

"During recent years about half a million producers have given up on their farms," said Victor Suarez, chairman of the Mexican Association of Agriculture Businesses.

Some concerns have also been raised about the broader use of genetically altered corn grown in the United States, a factor that has even prompted Zambia, in southern Africa, to turn down U.S. food aid despite the fact that its population faces starvation.

But there are signs that the Mexican food fare is not all that threatened. To begin with, salsa is still largely in the hands of Mexican producers, who export large quantities to the United States.

Then again, the Mexican government counted about 180,000 fast food taco stands in the country three years ago, with the unofficial number possibly twice as high. On this score, at least, the Mexicans have the upper hand over the mere 235 McDonald's restaurants opened since 1985. And in fact, most of the imported American beef ends up in tacos, not in the few cheeseburgers produced by the American fast food chain.

In the historic colonial city of Oaxaca, 500 kms southeast of Mexico City, McDonald's is up against a fierce wall of opposition to plans to open another restaurant there. A coalition of grass roots organizations and artists is demanding that the city withdraw approval for the license in the interests of protecting Mexico's culinary tradition in the heart of a city that many regard as the country's cultural capital. Officials are considering the issue.

Still others don't see the American influence as such a threat, and in fact believe Mexico should be proud of how far its own culinary tradition has staked a claim on the American palate.

"In the U.S.A. more tortillas are sold than bagels, more salsa than ketchup," an editorial in the Reforma daily trumpeted. "Do we want a Mexico open to the world, or a provincial, fearful and isolated Mexico?"

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