Mexico's corn heritage eroded by free-trade and food speculation

maize field

The first maize or corn plants in the world were grown in Mexico thousands of years ago (Images by Adriana Chow)

A combination of free trade and volatile food speculation is squeezing small-scale Mexican maize farmers and allowing agribusiness to dominate. Photos by Adriana Chow

Mexico has been growing corn for thousands of years since planting the first maize (or corn as it is also known) in the world.

In that time it has become more than just a staple food crop but an everyday ritual for millions of the country's population. The nobel prize winning poet Octavio Paz went as far as to suggest, ‘the invention of corn for Mexicans is comparable only to the invention of fire by man’.

But that heritage is being eroded by a decline in maize farmer numbers, the rising price of the Mexican staple corn tortillas and the increasing influence of cheaper western diets.

Since the signing of a free trade agreement between Mexico and the US in the mid-1990s there has been a decline in small-scale maize farmers in the country - unable to compete against the influx of heavily subsidised corn from North America.

An increasingly urbanised Mexico is now the second-largest importer of maize in the world after Japan, with production of the white maize Mexicans prefer to eat, increasingly concentrated in the hands of large agribusiness.

When bad weather hit harvests in the main growing state of Sinaloa in 2006 and again this year, Mexico was forced to import significantly more maize than normal from the US and elsewhere.

At the same time, a surge in financial speculation on food commodities by investors in the US and Europe has seen sudden jumps in the international trading prices of maize.

With its decline in self-sufficiency, Mexico's poor have been forced to pay an inflated price for their daily corn staple or switch to cheaper and less nutritious alternatives.

For many poor Mexicans, corn tortillas still account for almost half of their average daily calorie intake.

The Mexican government is being urged to do more to support small-scale farmers, promote the country's maize heritage and tackle the dominance of agribusiness giants, who have been accused of profiting from higher corn tortilla prices.

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