In the Cradle of Corn, Farmers Go Broke and People Go Hungry

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Maybe nine thousand years or so ago, corn was “born and bred” by the early peoples of the modern states of Oaxaca and Puebla, most probably in the Valley of Tehuacán. It took centuries of careful selection to turn a grass called teosinte into corn, but farmers in even the most remote areas developed hundreds of corn varieties adapted to different growing conditions. Although there are only about 60 strains of corn still grown in Mexico – Oaxaca is the origin for well over half of them – this genetic diversity should make corn a reliable food source even when natural or man-made disaster wipes out some types of corn.

(The Eye has published a number of articles on the history and cultivation of corn, go to https://theeyehuatulco.com/ and use the search box.)

Over time, corn has shaped the cultures and the lives of the indigenous peoples of Latin America; indeed, the Popol Vul, the sacred book of the people we now call the Maya (fl. c. 1800 BCE – 900 CE), reports that the gods tried to create humans first from mud and then from wood, but they failed. When the gods tried to create humans from corn, they succeeded, and the Maya became “the Children of the Corn.” Corn is thus way more than elotes y esquites sold from street carts – it is life itself. But the capacity of Mexican corn to sustainably support its people has faded almost entirely away.

How we think about hunger

People go hungry all the time. Drought here, famine there, and people in poverty have nothing to eat – we send money to food banks and hope for rain. That, however, is a response that only provides immediate relief. Growing and distributing food is by no means solely a natural phenomenon, and treating hunger as an unfortunate failure of nature is useless.

In 1981, the economist Amartya Sen, who notably also studied philosophy, published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation – one of those books that changed the way we think about something. In 1943, when Sen was nine years old and growing up in Bengal, three million Bengalese starved to death, ostensibly due to famine. (Bengal is now divided into the state of West Bengal, India, and the country of Bangladesh.)

Analyzing the Bengal famine, as well as multiple famines in other countries, Sen argued that people do not go hungry for lack of food. In fact, there were adequate supplies of rice in Bengal to prevent people from starving. But starve they did, because the system that provided food did not provide equally for everyone. In 1942, in the midst of WWII, Japan took Burma (now Myanmar) and Singapore, cutting off their rice exports. The Indian military overreacted, stockpiling large quantities of rice, which led the public to panic buying, hoarding, price increases and then price gouging. People in Calcutta (now Kolkata), which was the capital of British India, could still pay the price – but three million people in marginal occupations and rural areas, where wages were stagnant and resources were few, could not.

Hunger in Mexico

For a country with a history of rebellion and revolution on behalf of its “ordinary people,” Mexico has a complicated, century-long history of poverty and hunger. The latest statistics on hunger, food insecurity, and nutrition indicate that overall, about 1 person per hour starves to death in Mexico; about 1 in 5 kids under age 6 is morbidly malnourished; about a quarter of Mexico’s population is food insecure (lacking access to basic foods); and a quarter of the population is obese. Mexico is the largest Latin American consumer of highly processed, “hyper-caloric” food products – raising the incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

In rural areas, where poverty is endemic, food is available but people can’t pay for it; on average, over 40% of the populations of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas suffer from “food poverty.” (Statistics on Mexico’s social development status are collected by CONEVAL [Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social], which in 2008 developed the first multidimensional – both social and economic deprivation – poverty measurement protocol in the world.)

However, as both Amartya Sen and CONEVAL would point out, the connection between poverty and hunger is not simply a matter of whether you can afford to buy healthy food. For millennia, corn was the main staple in the Mexican diet, and it was a healthy food for the Mexican families who grew it. Tortillas made from native corn (maíz criollo) provided over 40% of a day’s protein requirement, they prevented rickets in kids, and offered lots of fiber. Between 1982 and 2018, however, tortilla consumption dropped by over half, and tortillas were “industrialized,” made from commercially grown and ground masa harina (corn flour). What happened?

NAFTA and the collapse of Mexican corn

A lot of things happened – agricultural, social, and political – but most significantly economic, starting with the promotion of free trade policies in the 1980s. Mexico, like other Latin American countries, had borrowed internationally to support modernization and industrialization. On August 12, 1982, Mexico defaulted on its debt. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailed Mexico out with a loan that required, among other things, reducing trade barriers, deregulating industry, and

liberalizing foreign investment. These conditions, along with other measures to facilitate international trade, especially with the U.S., led a decade later to Mexico’s participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, signed in 1994), renegotiated in 2020 as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). On the surface, NAFTA seemed to convey great benefits on Mexico’s ability to trade with the U.S. and Canada.

But NAFTA didn’t work out all that well in relation to agriculture and domestic food production, particularly the native corn. Concurrent with NAFTA, and required in part by the agreement, Mexico shuttered the few agricultural support programs it had in place, some of which were considered anti-poverty programs as well. The Mexican government made strenuous efforts to acquire imported grain, mainly corn, from the U.S. Scads of American corn arrived in Mexico, and was sold more cheaply than the more nutritious native corn. The impact on Mexico’s food system and people at the economic margins was profound.

By 2003, nine years after NAFTA, the zócalo in Mexico City was crammed with machete-wielding campesinos – farmers demonstrating against the impact of NAFTA on their ability to make a living growing corn. An additional clause took effect in 2003 – Mexico would no longer impose duties on agricultural imports from Canada and the U.S. That meant even more foreign corn, cheaper than ever; 900,000 farming jobs in Mexico had disappeared by 2003.

By 2004, the U.S. had quadrupled its corn exports to Mexico, and prices of native corn had dropped by 66%, driving many mid-sized corn farmers – the ones who were producing corn for sale, not subsistence – out of business.

By 2011, two million small and mid-sized farmers had left their land because they couldn’t support themselves; the land most of their farms occupied was rough and rocky, and couldn’t be adapted to compete with larger farms in flatter territory. For at least five years now, Mexican agricultural production has been shifting to export crops popular in the U.S., notably berries and avocados. Neither crop is integral to the Mexican diet, and small farmers do not have the resources to switch to such export production.

By 2016, corn was Mexico’s #1 agricultural import from the U.S. Mexico became the #1 export market for the U.S. not only for corn, but for dairy products, soybean meal, and poultry – all basic foodstuffs. It was the #2 export market for highly processed food from the U.S.

By 2018, Mexico was importing 45% of its food, ranking it 7th in the world as a food-importing nation.

In Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico (2018), author Alyshia Gálvez argues the food-system case against NAFTA’s “unintended consequences,” finding that a global and financial definition of “food security” has been more valued than subsistence agriculture, that commercial development has been more important than sustainability, and that market participation outweighs social welfare, particularly in relation to the Mexican diet. Galvez saw little chance for changing these outcomes.

On a more hopeful note, tortillas to the rescue

Just as healthy, protein rich tortillas made from heirloom corn seem to be a thing of the past, they may be back, ironically rescued for their potential to offer a gourmet food experience, albeit with a social purpose.

In May 2018, the Alianza por Nuestra Tortilla (Alliance for Our Tortilla), a collaboration among 75 or so businesses, food producers, corn farmers, and researchers, was formed to ensure Mexico can recover “la buena tortilla,” the ideal tortilla, made from native corn that has been nixtamalized (processed in an alkaline solution that unlocks nutrients and enhances flavor and scent). The corn will have no agricultural toxins or additives, and will not be genetically modified.

One member of the Alianza, businessman Rafael Mier, had founded the Fundación Tortilla in 2015, and its main program, Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana, a year later; the goal was to promote the “culture and consumption of corn and the tortilla as fundamental elements of national wellbeing.” Mier’s program works on public policy to revitalize native corn; preserve the traditional “three sisters” (corn, beans, squash) method of corn cultivation; and generate and disseminate knowledge of native corn and how to use it.

Taking a non-tortilla approach, the Scorpion Mezcal company launched Sierra Norte Native Corn Whiskies in 2016, made from 15% malted barley and 85% maíz criollo. Although the new product was driven by the burgeoning popularity of mezcal, which in turn caused a shortage of agave, owner Douglas French sees it as a way to help keep Oaxacan “native cultures and traditions alive,” specifically by buying endangered heirloom corn produced by small family farms at a fair price.

New tortillerías have opened in Mexico City that specialize in traditional tortillas, which have started appearing on the menus of upscale restaurants, e.g., Pujol; the first, Maizajo in Azcapotzalco, opened in 2016 and is “dedicated to the research, production, and commercialization of native corn products.” Cintli, opened in 2017 in the La Roma neighborhood, likewise focuses on native corn, uses nixtamalization in its processes, and practices social justice in its relations with corn producers. You can take a tour of Cintli, and try out their tortillas (and other heirloom corn products).

You don’t even have to go to Mexico to experience tortillas made from maíz criollo. In 2014, Jorge Gaviria, originally from New York, founded Masienda in San Francisco; now located in Los Angeles, Masienda aims to “elevate the everyday tortilla through a return to its origins,” which Gaviria found in Oaxaca. By now, Masienda has relationships with over 2,000 smallholder Oaxacan corn farmers, and produces traditional tortillas from their native corn. You can purchase Masienda’s Corn Tortillas (pink bag) and their Blue Corn Tortillas (blue bag) from Whole Foods in New York City for $4.49 US each.

Whether creating a market for gourmet tortillas will create enough demand to help small farmers in Oaxaca is an open question, though. If you’re in Mexico now or even a couple of years from now, that corn tortilla under your taco will most probably have been “born in the USA.”