Anne Seymour and Susan Gzesh
U.S. farm policy and its effects on rural development in countries which are recipients of U.S. agricultural exports is a topic to which U.S. immigrants' rights advocates have not paid much attention. However, given the integration of the U.S. and Mexican economies, the issue of U.S. and Mexican farm policy needs to get "on the screen" of the immigrant advocacy community. Both U.S. and Mexican farmers and Mexican migrants in both countries suffer from poorly thought through aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). However, the link between the two topics has not yet been fully explored by either immigrants' rights or farm policy advocates.
Under current U.S. farm policy, U.S. corn - which has been grown at low cost due to economies of scale and government subsidies - is exported to Mexico for sale. Mexican campesino corn farmers, who have lost Mexican government support in the post-NAFTA era, are unable to compete with low priced U.S. corn. Therefore, these Mexican corn farmers cannot find markets for their crops, and many ultimately abandon farming. Some of these displaced farmers emigrate to the United States. This emigration from Mexico to the United States has a direct affect on the labor force of U.S. agricultural producers, whose workforce is made up largely of undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans.
The challenge for activists concerned with rural policy and migration is to develop joint initiatives that will get their colleagues - and ultimately, policymakers - to see the connection between these two issues, generating a discussion to address an important root cause of undocumented Mexican migration to the United States.
On October 21, 2000, Victor Suarez Carrera, an agronomist with the Mexico-based Asociación Nacional de Empresas Comercializador/es de Productores del Campo (ANEC) met with representatives of Chicago-based Mexican hometown associations (HTAs) at the office of Chicago Alderman Ricardo Muñoz, a progressive Mexican American elected official. The Mexico-U.S. Advocates Network organized this meeting to explore potential areas of cooperation between the Mexico-based ANEC and the Chicago-based HTAs in areas of direct technical assistance - to home communities of the Chicago-based Mexican immigrants - and policy advocacy. A potential partnership between ANEC and one or more Chicago area HTAs could serve as a model of cross-border cooperation to better the situation of Mexicans on both sides of the border.
ANEC can provide technical assistance for HTAs in the United States who wish to promote remittance-funded producer cooperatives and/or sustainable development projects in their communities of origin. Additionally, through contact with the HTAs, ANEC members will be better informed about the situation of Mexicans in the United States and their role as activists in US society.
The October meeting followed an August "get acquainted" meeting between members of ANEC and representatives from the HTAs. Fourteen members of ANEC representing agricultural cooperatives from five Mexican states met with 25 members of Chicago-based HTAs. The August meeting demonstrated how much in common the ANEC campesino leadership has with many Mexican immigrants in the United States. One important issue discussed was the state of agricultural production in the communities of origin of the Chicago area residents - who were very interested in the efforts of ANEC to sustain or revitalize agricultural production in similar Mexican communities. Another issue discussed was the capacity of Chicago-area HTAs to sponsor sustainable development projects with remittances. Victor Suarez, the Executive Director of ANEC, decided to come to Chicago in October at the invitation of the Mexico-US Advocates Network for follow-up to the first meeting.
One of the topics at the October meeting was U.S. corn exports to Mexico and how they affect communities like the hometowns of Chicago-based Mexican immigrants. A campaign was recently launched by ANEC and Greenpeace Mexico to stop the dumping of Genetically Engineered (GE) corn in Mexico, entitled "Tortillas de las buenas, tortillas de maíz mexicano, libres de transgénicos" (Good tortillas of Mexican corn, free from genetic modification). Suarez provided an in-depth explanation of the problems with current U.S. agricultural policy including the impact it has on Mexican farmers attempting to compete on the world corn market, the potential health risks it causes for Mexicans whose major food source is corn, and the effects it could have on the future biodiversity of Mexican corn.
Corn Production in Mexico
According to Suarez, the Mexican government decided in 1982 to abandon their traditional support for campesino agriculture and shift to importing less expensive U.S. grains. NAFTA represented a new level of "free market" rule for Mexican agriculture. Since NAFTA's implementation in 1995, corn imports into Mexico have almost doubled. Currently, Mexico imports an average of 4.2 million tons of U.S. corn per year - an amount above that approved in NAFTA agreements - whereas, before NAFTA, imports averaged 2.5 million tons per year. In addition to this policy's detrimental effects on Mexican corn farmers, it has resulted in the dumping of genetically engineered corn whose health and environmental risks for Mexicans and Mexico is unknown.
Recent news reports that U.S. corn designated as animal feed and unfit for human consumption had been used by a Mexican food company has increased public interest in Mexico on this issue. Mexico is capable of an annual production of 18 million tons of better-quality corn at a fair price, more than enough to sustain the Mexican population. Mexico can assure its own food security. However, according to Suarez the Mexican government sacrificed the Mexican corn-producing sector during the NAFTA negotiations purely because of "market" considerations.
While corn produced in the United States is sold to Mexico at a price below the Mexican cost of production, U.S. corn is not produced more efficiently or at a cheaper price than Mexican corn. According to Mr. Suarez, the production cost of corn in both Mexico and the United States is the same. U.S. corn is sold at a lower price because U.S. farmers receive large subsidies from the U.S. government that enables them to sell the corn below the price of production. The difference between the price of production and the sale price of the corn is paid by the U.S. government to U.S. farmers enabling them to break even no matter what the market sale price is. The Mexican government does not provide the same subsidies to its farmers making it impossible for them to compete with the low price of U.S. corn.
Policy Impact on Mexican and U.S. Farmers
The dumping of U.S. produced corn in Mexico is threatening traditional Mexican agriculture and causing economic hardship for small farmers in the country. For this reason, it has become a direct cause of Mexico-U.S. migration. Because Mexican corn producers do not receive the same subsidies on corn production as U.S. farmers, they are unable to compete with the importation of U.S. corn. Current rural policy has left Mexican campesinos with few economic alternatives in their communities of origin and threatens to destroy Mexican family farms. Because Mexican farmers are not able to generate sufficient income from corn production to provide for the basic needs of their families, they have been forced to look for employment opportunities elsewhere. This process pushed many displaced Mexican farmers to migrate to the United States in search of work - an important example of development policy as a root cause of the migration phenomenon.
This policy also carries serious cultural implications for Mexico. Corn is not just a means of survival in Mexico but has a long cultural history in the country dating back from its first cultivation over 7000 years ago. Hundreds of local varieties, in colors from white to blue to yellow, exist in indigenous and campesino communities. Corn is the livelihood of many rural communities and, to these communities, means much more than the number of tons produced.
This flawed policy does not only affect Mexican corn producers but also has negative implication for U.S. corn farmers. Because government subsidies allow U.S. farmers to recover their costs despite having to sell corn at a price lower than the price of production, they have become completely dependent on the U.S. government. According to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, subsidies in the United States have grown from 7.8 billion dollars to 28 billion dollars. U.S. corn farmers now receive 42 percent of their total income from subsidies.
Human Health and Environmental Concerns of Genetically Engineered Corn Advocates believe that a significant percentage of corn imported into Mexico is genetically engineered (GE) and not approved for human consumption in the United States. According to Greenpeace, the importation of this corn is threatening the biodiversity of Mexican corn and human health. The potential dangers to human health and Mexican indigenous corn also have been recognized in Mexico as growing of GE corn for human consumption is prohibited there. However, there are no requirements in Mexico for tortilla producers to mark products made with GE corn - leaving Mexican consumers without the option of choosing whether to eat GE corn or not.
The environmental and health implications of GE corn are unknown. Therefore, its consumption should be prohibited until this issue can be further researched. It is important to assure that imported GE corn is not being used as seed corn. The impact of the GE corn on other organisms once it has entered the food chain - as animals raised on GE corn are consumed by humans or other animals - is unknown. There are also the unknown effects of accidental cross pollination with indigenous varieties of corn. In Mexico there are hundreds of varieties of indigenous corn grown that could potentially be altered or destroyed through the spread of GE corn.
ANEC and Greenpeace recently launched a campaign to stop all imports of genetically engineered corn into Mexico. The campaign is entitled "Tortillas de las buenas, tortillas de maíz mexicano, libres de transgénicos" and includes a network of 450 tortillerías that have vowed to produce tortillas only from Mexican grown corn that is not genetically engineered. Because of concerns about the preservation of the genetic diversity of Mexican corn, the campaign also calls for corn to be produced in Mexico rather than imported from the United States and for the price of corn on the world market to be reevaluated.
Another effort being undergone by ANEC is the empowerment of Mexican corn farmers. Currently, Mexican campesinos do not have a say in the policies that have such a serious affect on their lives - made by a government which does not value their way of life or standard of living. ANEC is working to enable Mexican corn farmers to effectively impact international farm policy, guided by the principles that Mexican campesinos have the right to provide their own food and to live a dignified life at home.
ANEC has had a long history of collaborations with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), based in Minneapolis, in designing farmer-to-farmer exchanges and collaborating on binational and international rural development and farm policy issues. With the assistance of the Mexico-U.S. Advocates Network, ANEC and IATP would like to bring U.S. immigrants' rights advocates and Mexican HTAs and other immigrant-led organizations into the discussion of these "link" issues.
The diversity of the Mexican immigrant community in Chicago and its leadership was reflected in the October meeting - which produced some interesting results. Mexican hometown association members who self-identify as campesinos or still feel themselves connected to, and responsible for, farming communities in Mexico were extremely interested in Suarez's analysis of how Mexican federal and state government farm policies influence their home communities. They were particularly intrigued by the possibility that ANEC could send technical assistance to their communities in Michoacán and Jalisco to assist their families and neighbors in developing cooperatives and better marketing their crops - a major pillar of ANEC's work in Mexico. Suarez promised them that ANEC would follow up with their communities.
Other Mexican immigrant participants who are more urbanized and less directly involved with farming communities in Mexico were equally engaged by Suarez's discussion of Mexican government farm policy, but were more interested in following up with policy advocacy. There was much discussion in the meeting regarding the possibilities created by the defeat of the PRI and Vicente Fox's assuming the presidency - and whether the new administration would deal with rural policy or migration in an innovative way or not. To better assert the interests of Mexicans in the United States, 16 state-level federations of hometown associations have formed the non-partisan - Coordinadora de Organizaciones Mexicanas en el Mediooeste (COMMO). COMMO includes among its committees one to evaluate the effects of NAFTA. Representatives of COMMO at the meeting with Suarez said they would consider participation in the campaign against GE corn exports to Mexico through the NAFTA evaluation committee.
Anne Seymour is the Program Coordinator and Susan Gzesh is the Director of the Mexico-U.S. Advocates Network at Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights. For updates on the progress of this collaboration and for more information on HTAs, look at our Website at http://www.mexicousadvocates.org. More information on the campaign against GE corn can be found at http://www.greenpeace.org.mx. More information on ANEC can be found at http://www.anec.org.mx. For information about US-based efforts to advocate for more humane global food and farm policies, and for information about U.S. farm issues, go to the IATP Website at http://www.iapc.org.
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Last Updated on 11/24/00