Retreat to Subsistence | The Nation


Retreat to Subsistence

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Aldo González and other indigenous farmers are well aware of their link to the ancient practice of plant domestication. One morning not long ago González and I walked into his milpa through stands of dahlias and wild salvia. In addition to showing me his two-month-old white corn and his snaky squash and bean vines, he pointed out a wild, self-sown tomato; an Amaranthus, a relative of the grain crop widely eaten by indigenous people in South America; and a traditional Zapotec medicinal herb used to coax out "malos aires." Around the edges of the field, González identified a wild avocado tree, a grove of guayabas and a huaje tree, an edible bean tree from whose name the city name of Oaxaca is derived. "The important thing," he told me, "is that we clean out and plant the fields but don't break the connection to the surrounding ecosystem. These fields are part of the natural system; they're not apart from it."

Ex Mex
From Migrants to Immigrants
By Jorge Castañeda
Buy this book

Sin Maíz, no Hay País
Edited by Gustavo Esteva and Catherine Marielle

NAFTA’s Promise and Reality
Lessons From Mexico for the Hemisphere
By the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Available at carnegieendowment.org

The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States
By the National Research Council
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Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants
The Scope and Adequacy of Regulation
By the National Research Council
Buy this book

Maize and Biodiversity
The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico
By the Commission for Environmental Cooperation
Available at cec.org

Failure to Yield
Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops
By the Union of Concerned Scientists
Available at ucsusa.org


About the Author

Peter Canby
Peter Canby is a senior editor at The New Yorker and the author of The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya (...

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Inside Mexico, NAFTA was the project of a group widely referred to as "technocrats" in the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari who belonged to the modernizing wing of Mexico's ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). When Salinas came into office in 1988, the government—as a legacy of Mexico's revolution—was highly protectionist, strong on social services and involved in one way or another with just about every aspect of the economy. By the standards of modern free-market economies, Mexico was inefficient and often corrupt, and people were relatively poor, but the government's social and economic benefits were widespread.

Salinas and his technocrats decided to slash the safety net and throw open Mexico to free trade. Salinas argued that Mexico's low wages and physical proximity to the United States gave it a natural advantage as an exporter, and he promised to close the wage gap between the two countries by developing an export economy. He thereby aimed to solve the historic problem of immigration to the United States. Mexico, Salinas promised, would "export goods, not people."

For many Mexicans and non-Mexicans at the time, the prospect of change was welcome. According to Laura Carlsen, director of the Mexico City–based Americas Program of the Center for International Policy, "There was a feeling of euphoria. People were convinced [NAFTA] was going to create jobs, create industrial corridors, reduce emigration and get people out of rural areas where they didn't have services. At that point, no one was talking about the ties of indigenous people to the land."

Part of the thinking behind NAFTA involved the doctrine of "comparative advantage," the idea that in global trade each country should take advantage of its natural strengths. Mexico's advantage was its cheap and plentiful labor force; however, although corn had evolved in Mexico and has been grown there for thousands of years, the negotiators agreed that the United States had the comparative advantage in corn production. According to Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), because of hybrid corn and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, the fruits of the "Green Revolution" of the 1950s and '60s, the productivity of corn farms in the United States has increased from twenty bushels an acre in 1920 to as many as 200 now.

But Pollan and others have argued that comparisons of small-scale and industrial productivity can be deceptive. Each bushel of industrial corn in the United States requires between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil for fuel, fertilizer and other applications. This can add up to fifty gallons or more of oil per acre, a level of consumption that is practicable only as long as fossil fuel is cheap. Heavy government subsidies paid to farmers, moreover, have also masked the real cost of corn. Pollan tells us that in Iowa, in 2005, it cost $2.50 to grow a bushel of corn that sold at the grain elevator for $1.45.

Industrial agriculture can also have steep "external costs." Timothy Wise, research director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, points out that corn is one of the most chemically dependent crops. Moreover, the prices at which it is sold fail to account for the associated environmental damage caused by chemicals. High on the list of damages is the growing "dead zone" at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico; roughly the size of New Jersey, the area is almost devoid of marine life as a result of nitrogen runoff.

The NAFTA negotiators overlooked these concerns. Soon after NAFTA was signed, tariffs on corn from the United States were eliminated and US corn began flooding Mexico. Corn was further subsidized for export by the US government and arrived in Mexico at 20 percent below its already subsidized cost of production. Much of the corn from the United States was intended as animal feed, but it depressed the price of corn generally and by 2008 the real price paid to Mexican corn farmers had dropped 50 percent.

Simultaneously, within Mexico the government dismantled programs that had supported small farmers since the revolution. At the time NAFTA took effect, a government agency known as CONASUPO handled more than half of the nation's corn crop; it administered price supports, offered storage infrastructure and assured minimum incomes through subsidies. By 1999 CONASUPO had been phased out, leaving Mexican farmers to their own devices; meanwhile, in the United States, the 1996 and 2002 farm bills approximately doubled agricultural subsidies.

Not everyone agreed with the NAFTA agricultural measures. Alejandro Nadal, a professor of economics at the Colegio de México, is critical of the government's failure to think through the dismantling of "the most strategic sector of Mexico's agricultural economy." As Nadal told me, "There were 3 million corn producers and five people per producer family. That's 15 million people. Then there were transporters and other attached industries—22 million people—a quarter of the country's population. Before putting the corn sector into NAFTA, wouldn't you think about it twice? The government had no single study for why they put corn into NAFTA."

In an essay in Sin Maíz, no Hay País, a book on Mexico's corn crisis published in 2003, David Barkin, a professor at the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico, quotes a Salinas-era technocrat who says that it was the administration's policy to remove half of the population from Mexico's rural areas within five years. It's unclear what the government ever had in mind for the displaced farmers. At the time, a political scientist who closely monitored Mexican politics told me, "They have no credible prediction as to where these people will be employed. My guess is that they're thinking Los Angeles."

In general terms, the Salinas administration assumed NAFTA export industries would generate jobs for displaced farmers. It was soon proved wrong. According to NAFTA's Promise and Reality, a well-regarded 2004 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in the first decade of NAFTA a million workers a year entered the Mexican labor force, while the economy created only half a million jobs annually. Perhaps not coincidentally, the tide of immigration to the United States swelled during these years to about the same number—half a million a year.

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