The “tortilla crisis” in Mexico

The recent upward spiral of prices for corn tortillas, the basic staple of the Mexican population, has garnered a lot of international media attention ("Thousands in Mexico City Protest Rising Food Prices," NY Times, February 1, 2007).

Sadly, most stories have missed the point. The current crisis is the result of two basic forces: almost 25 years of misguided policies, and a short-term coincidence of interests between neoliberal officials, grain companies like Cargill, and the biotech seed industry.

Since 1982 — and especially in preparation for the 1994 signing of NAFTA — successive Mexican presidents have implemented policies that, combined with the opening of the Mexican market to imports of cheap corn, have savagely undercut national corn production by peasant farmers. The result is that Mexico, where corn was domesticated 9,000 years ago by indigenous farmers, now imports one third of its needs, despite having the land to produce nearly double
what it consumes.

Taking advantage of this loss of food self-sufficiently, free traders in the government have conspired with grain import-export companies and the biotech industry to create an artificial crisis. The pretext is rising corn prices in the US due to growing demand for bio-ethanol plants, but Mexican tortilla prices have risen far, far more than US prices. In fact, the grain industry was allowed to hoard the last harvest, driving prices way up, serving as the perfect pretext for the free traders to further open the country to greater tariff-free imports, which will further undercut national productive capacity.
It has also allowed the biotech industry to demand permission for commercial planting of until-now banned genetically modified corn.

In fact, what Mexico needs is a "food sovereignty" policy — one that combines diverse policy measures with a halt to tariff-free imports in order to rebuild national corn growing capacity. This is what Mexican farmer organizations are correctly calling for. If Mexico produces it's own corn, which it can easily do, then it won't matter when international prices fluctuate up or down, and peasant farmers will once again be able to make a living instead of being forced to migrate North.

Peter Rosset, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Rural Change in Mexico (CECCAM)

This is letter was sent to the NY Times and was NOT published.