| Americans have been talking
a lot about trade this campaign season, about globalism's winners
and losers, and especially about the export of American jobs.
Yet even when globalism is working the way it's supposed to
-- when Americans are exporting things like crops rather than
jobs -- there can be a steep social and environmental cost.
One of the ballyhooed successes of the North American Free Trade
Agreement has been the opening of Mexico to American farmers,
who are now selling millions of bushels of corn south of the
border. But why would Mexico, whose people still subsist on
maize (mostly in tortillas), whose farmers still grow more maize
than any other crop, ever buy corn from an American farmer?
Because he can produce it much more cheaply than any Mexican
farmer can. Actually that's not quite right -- it's because
he can sell it much more cheaply.
Cheap corn from U.S. farms
is flooding the Mexican market place and washing
its farmers out of the field.
This is largely because of U.S. agricultural policies. While
one part of the U.S. government speaks of the need to alleviate
Third World poverty, another is writing subsidy checks to
American farmers, which encourages them to overproduce and
undersell Third World farmers.
The river of cheap American corn began flooding into Mexico
after NAFTA took effect in 1994. Since then, the price of
corn in Mexico has fallen by half. A 2003 report by the Carnegie
Endowment says this flood has washed away 1.3 million small
farmers. Unable to compete, they have left their land to join
the swelling pools of Mexico's urban unemployed. Others migrate
to the U.S. to pick our crops -- former farmers become day
The cheap U.S. corn has also wreaked havoc on Mexico's land,
according to the Carnegie report. The small farmers forced off
their land often sell out to larger farmers who grow for export,
farmers who must adopt far more industrial (and especially chemical-
and water-intensive) practices to compete in the international
marketplace. Fertilizer runoff into the Sea of Cortez starves
its marine life of oxygen, and Mexico's scarce water resources
are leaching north, one tomato at a time.
||"Mexico's small farmers still
grow hundreds of different, open-pollinated varieties.
This genetic diversity, the product of 10,000 years of
human-maize co-evolution, represents some of the most
precious and irreplaceable information on Earth."
Mexico's industrial farmers now produce fruits and vegetables
for American tables year-round. It's absurd for a country
like Mexico -- whose people are often hungry -- to use its
best land to grow produce for a country where food is so abundant
that its people are obese -- but under free trade, it makes
Meanwhile, the small farmers struggling to hold on in Mexico
are forced to grow their corn on increasingly marginal lands,
contributing to deforestation and soil erosion.
Compounding these environmental pressures is the advent of
something new to
Mexico: factory farming. The practice of feeding corn to livestock
was actively discouraged by the Mexican government until quite
recently -- an expression of the culture's quasi-religious
reverence for maize. But those policies were reversed in 1994,
and, just as it has done in the United States, cheap corn
has driven the growth of animal feedlots, which contribute
to water and air pollution.
Cheap American corn in Mexico threatens Zea mays
itself -- and by extension all of us who have come to depend
on this plant. The small Mexican farmers who grow corn in
southern Mexico are responsible for maintaining the genetic
diversity of the species. While American farmers raise a small
handful of genetically nearly identical hybrids, Mexico's
small farmers still grow hundreds of different, open-pollinated
varieties, commonly called landraces.
This genetic diversity, the product of 10,000 years of human-maize
co-evolution, represents some of the most precious and irreplaceable
information on Earth, as we were reminded in 1970 when a fungus
decimated the American corn crop and genes for resistance
were found in a landrace under cultivation in southern Mexico.
These landraces will survive only as long as the farmers who
cultivate them do. The cheap U.S. corn that is driving these
farmers off their land threatens to dry up the pool of genetic
diversity on which the future of the species depends.
Perhaps from a strictly economic point of view, free trade
in a commodity like corn appears eminently rational. But look
at the same phenomenon from a biological point of view and
it begins to look woefully shortsighted, if not mad.
||Michael Pollan, a professor at the University
of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism,
is the author of three books, including The Botany of
Desire. A contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine,
he wrote this essay for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers
Circle, Salina, Kan. http:www.landinstitute.org/