Growing corn in Mexico, post NAFTA
In the first of two stories, Don Lotter talks to farmers, grain buyers and tortillería owners for an honest look at the impact of free trade and U.S. corn dumping on farm incomes and genetic diversity in Mexico.

By Don Lotter

Posted August 3, 2004: The two o’clock lineup at the corner tortillería that I pass daily is a cross section of Mexican society. Men and women in business attire, school kids, maids, campesinos, laborers – all wait in line for Mexico’s daily sustenance -hot, steaming corn tortillas, fresh off the press. No matter what one’s economic standing is, corn tortillas are the basis of at least two meals a day.

Developed by the original Mesoamericans, the process of making tortillas by boiling shucked corn with chunks of calcium hydroxide, a process called nixtamal, liberates nutrients and softens the seed coat. The boiled, nixtamal-ized corn was traditionally ground to masa dough using a stone hand grinder called a metate. This took women several hours every morning, often starting a four AM.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, one of the first widespread uses of small scale gas engines and electric motors was to power wet grain grinders for making masa. A hand press or hand patting were used to form the masa into tortillas.

By the 1960s and ‘70s small scale tortilla-making machines which could put out a hot, steaming tortilla every two seconds were spreading throughout Mexico.

Mexico is the center of origin and diversity for corn. Nearly a hundred major corn landraces, genetically distinct local varieties, also known as criollo varieties, exist in Mexico. Up until recent decades, these criollo varieties of corn supplied local tortillerías.

"Mexico is the center of origin and diversity for corn. Nearly a hundred major corn landraces, genetically distinct local varieties, also known as criollo varieties, exist in Mexico."

Modern high-yielding varieties of corn have made inroads into this diversity. Grown in states of Mexico like Sinaloa, where the government has heavily subsidized the development of capital intensive agriculture, high-yielding varieties nowadays make up much, if not most, of the corn used in tortillerías in Mexico. None of the commercial corn grown in Mexico is genetically modified, as Mexico has a moratorium in place on planting GM corn.

With the initiation in 1948 of the first of the “green revolution” institutes, CIMMYT (International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat), outside of Mexico City, Mexico was one of the first of the developing countries to participate in the development of high-yielding, input-intensive corn and wheat varieties.

Areas that were fertile and irrigable were where criollo varieties probably first began to disappear, under the onslaught of modern, large-scale agriculture. Ironically, it was these landraces, allowed to disappear before comprehensive gene bank collections were started, that would have been most valuable to green revolution plant breeders, as they were selected for growing on irrigated lowlands.

However, because only about a quarter of the 6.5 million hectares of corn grown in Mexico are suitable for high-yield production, the other three-quarters of corn land, nearly all rain-fed, has mostly been planted with local criollo varieties.

Corn in the central highlands of Mexico.

Imeldo Escalona Chavarria is one of the 253 farmers who make up the Santiago Cuahutlalpan ejido (Click here for more info on ejidos) near the town of Tepotzotlán, in Mexico´s central highlands an hour’s drive north of Mexico City. Imeldo farms 8 hectares, about twice the average holding for 800 hectare ejido. He grows mostly corn, as well as traditional beans and fava beans.

It’s mid-May and the rains have come in full force here. It’s the kind of rain that Californians like myself don’t see enough of, picturesque afternoon thundershowers that clear the air and then go away, leaving clear evening skies.

Imeldo’s corn land is half criollo, planted on rainfed land, and half hybrid commercial corn, sown on irrigated land. Over the entire ejido the proportion is 20% hybrid and 80% criollo, according to Imeldo’s brother Rogelio, an ejido leader. Imeldo’s improved corn varieties yield about 8 tons per hectare. Last year however, the rains were so good that the rainfed criollo corn yielded on par with the hybrid corn.

Hybrid corn, or any non-criollo corn, will pollinate criollo corn when they are grown near each other, if the tassling date of the hybrid corn corresponds with the flowering (silking) of the criollo corn, giving seed that has genes from the hybrid variety. I asked Imeldo how, when selecting seed for the next year, the farmers here keep the criollo corn separate from the hybrid varieties. “We can see which grains come from the hybrid corn,” says Imeldo, “they have a different shape and color.” (A future article will deal with genetic “contamination” and gene flow in criollo corn in more detail.)

The tillage regime that the Santiago Cuahutlalpan farmers use is fairly unique. Only about one in fifty farmers owns a tractor, so initial disking of fields by tractor is generally hired out for 650 pesos ($65) per hectare. Row forming is also sometimes done by tractor for 350 pesos ($35) per hectare.

After the initial disking, however, the farmers here use horse-drawn plows, known as yuntas. Imeldo says that most of the farmers in the ejido own a pair of horses and a plow. Some of them do all of the operations, including initial disking, using the yunta.

Soil fertility maintenance is mainly by NPK and urea fertilizers. Out of ten years a farmer may grow a year of field beans and a year of fava beans, according to Imeldo. Green manure crops are not well-known here. Irrigated areas may get a couple of years of alfalfa out of ten.

The use of herbicides varies throughout the ejido, with some farmers, like Imeldo, using herbicide on both the hybrid and criollo corn while others depend on the yunta. In general, according to Rogelio Escalona, herbicides are used on the hybrid corn, and the yunta, plus azadon, a large hoe, are used on the criollo varieties. Imeldo uses a herbicide called “Calibre”. He also sprays an insecticide for a pest called the chapulin.

"For the price we get for corn, it's not worth growing it for sale. Feeding it to animals and then selling the animals pays better."
About seventy percent of the corn grown by the Santiago farmers goes to feeding animals, mostly cattle and horses, according to Imeldo as well as his brother, Rogelio. The rest is for home consumption. Since this area is near Mexico City, there is a substantial demand for meat from city dwellers.

Meat consumption has been growing in Mexico at over 4% per year, and in urban areas, where Mexico´s wealth is concentrated, that growth is probably considerably more than the national average.

Eighty to ninety percent of meat sales in Mexico are via small butcher businesses, carnecerias. These small-scale meat brokers comb the countryside, buying a beef cow here or a sheep there, have it slaughtered at a licensed plant, and sell it in their carneceria.

Mega-stores have been making inroads into the small-scale food retailers. Sales of meats by large grocery chains (Walmart is the largest grocery chain in Mexico), which import much of their meat from the US, have been growing at a rate of about 10% per year.

It is the small-scale meat industry that is driving much of the corn production in areas like Santiago, areas that are within a half day drive of a major city.

“For the price we get for corn, it’s not worth growing it for sale. Feeding it to animals and then selling the animals pays better,” says smallholder Baltazar Gonzales, member of the Tepotzotlán ejido.

In other areas of Mexico, however, farther from affluent urban areas, the market for farm-grown meat is not as strong, and Mexican corn farmers have been suffering as a result.

Low corn prices driven by cheap, subsidized corn from the US.

Imports of cheap, subsidized US corn have been killing the Mexican small farmer, who has depended on the corn crop for sale as well as domestic consumption for, well, millenia. Until the early 1990s Mexico supported its corn farmers with subsidies. This changed in the early 1990s when the Mexican government bought – lock, stock, and barrel – into the “free” market and globalization process being pushed by the US and its “Washington Consensus” economists.

Actually, Mexico’s conversion to “liberalization” of the corn market may have been as much a process of force-feeding as salesmanship, according to a report from America’s Policy (, a New Mexico-based think tank. Mexico’s mid-1990s debt crisis and peso devaluation was bandaged with a $100 billion bailout orchestrated by the Clinton administration. Part of the deal was for Mexico to buy a billion dollars worth of US corn. Furthermore, subsidized US credit was given to Mexican companies to buy US corn, at 7% interest rates, as opposed to the going Mexican rates, for buying Mexican corn, of 20-30%.

In just one year, corn imports by Mexico increased by 120% from 1995 to 1996. Nearly all of the US corn goes for animal feed.

"In just one year, corn imports by Mexico increased by 120%."

Subsidies now account for 40% of US farm net income, most of that going to very large operations. During the 1990s, as part of the US-backed push to transform Mexican agriculture to the “free” market, the percentage of Mexican farmers’ income from the government fell from 33% to 13%.

It is now well established that US corn exports to Mexico constitute “dumping”, at a “dumping margin” of 25% under what the cost should be. Recent articles in Mexican newspapers report that this is being addressed in bilateral meetings. However, having lived in Canada, and heard the Canadian trade experiences with the US, I can say without hesitation that the entire “free trade” movement is a one-way street, going the US way. US negotiators bald-facedly and without any compunction whatsoever tell their counterparts across the negotiating table that “this is the way it is going to be” in negotiating agreements that are skewed toward the US. So don’t hold your breath on the Mexican corn issue.

According to Ricardo Rentería, a manager at Servicios de Almacenamiento, a grain warehouse and outlet near Tepotzotlán, the food corn they buy comes from two main areas in Mexico – the state of Sinaloa, and a region known as El Bajío, a group of states around Guanajuato, in central Mexico. The price for corn from these highly productive areas right now is about 2.1 pesos per kg (US$0.21). According to Rentería, criollo corn sells right now for about 2.5 pesos per kg, if it´s available. “But these days corn production in this area is decreasing. Farmers would rather sell the land for building houses. They can make a lot more money that way,” says Rentería.

Rentería alluded to the unfairness of the US corn dumping and said that they buy very little US corn--and then, only broken corn for animal feed. US corn is a mixture of about 30% genetically modified varieties plus non-GMO corn. Broken corn cannot be surreptitiously planted, a problem that will be dealt with in a future article. My impression is that there is widespread awareness in Mexico of the unfairness of the US corn dumping policies.

I asked Sergio Robles, owner of Molina La Tradicion, a small mill and store in the Tepotzotlán central market, about whether criollo corn is available. “Local criollo corn is not sold in large amounts anymore,” says Robles. “Occasionally I get a farmer coming to me with criollo corn, but generally the price he wants is too high – 3 or 31/2 pesos per kilo. We sell corn now for just a little more than two pesos per kilo.”

I went to half a dozen tortillerías in Tepotzotlán and asked where they got their corn. Only one, Tortillería La Bougainvillea, said they consistently buy local criollo corn. The others all get their corn from Sinaloa or the Bajío states, capital intensive agriculture areas. Carmen Almazan, whose great-grandparents started La Bougainvillea nearly fifty years ago, said she prefers the local corn because it is usually fresher and more tender than the commercial corn. She says they pay just about the same price as commercial corn for the criollo corn, maybe a little more.

A few of the tortillería proprietors said that criollo corn tortillas tasted better, but most said or implied that there isn’t much difference between tortillas from criollo corn and those from commercial corn. If there is any difference, the consumers don’t appear to care much. Criollo corn tortillas and masa are always available, made by hand press and sold by campesino women in the local markets.

A standard practice, especially when corn supplies are short, is for tortillerías to mix dry corn flour (masa harina) into the fresh masa.

COMING NEXT: In the next installment of Pan-American Adventure, Don Lotter will take a closer look at the corn situation in Mexico, and will profile another farmer in the state of Oaxaca. He’ll also explore the issue of transgenic contamination of native corn.