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
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 form 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
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.
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
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
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
(www.americaspolicy.org), 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.
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.