The first maize or corn plants in the world were grown in Mexico thousands of years ago (Images by Adriana Chow)
Mexico's corn heritage eroded by free-trade and food speculation
13th September, 2011
A combination of free trade and volatile food speculation is squeezing small-scale Mexican maize farmers and allowing agribusiness to dominate. Photos by Adriana Chow
Mexico has been growing corn for thousands of years since planting the first maize (or corn as it is also known) in the world.
In that time it has become more than just a staple food crop but an everyday ritual for millions of the country's population. The nobel prize winning poet Octavio Paz went as far as to suggest, ‘the invention of corn for Mexicans is comparable only to the invention of fire by man’.
But that heritage is being eroded by a decline in maize farmer numbers, the rising price of the Mexican staple corn tortillas and the increasing influence of cheaper western diets.
Since the signing of a free trade agreement between Mexico and the US in the mid-1990s there has been a decline in small-scale maize farmers in the country - unable to compete against the influx of heavily subsidised corn from North America.
An increasingly urbanised Mexico is now the second-largest importer of maize in the world after Japan, with production of the white maize Mexicans prefer to eat, increasingly concentrated in the hands of large agribusiness.
When bad weather hit harvests in the main growing state of Sinaloa in 2006 and again this year, Mexico was forced to import significantly more maize than normal from the US and elsewhere.
At the same time, a surge in financial speculation on food commodities by investors in the US and Europe has seen sudden jumps in the international trading prices of maize.
With its decline in self-sufficiency, Mexico's poor have been forced to pay an inflated price for their daily corn staple or switch to cheaper and less nutritious alternatives.
For many poor Mexicans, corn tortillas still account for almost half of their average daily calorie intake.
The Mexican government is being urged to do more to support small-scale farmers, promote the country's maize heritage and tackle the dominance of agribusiness giants, who have been accused of profiting from higher corn tortilla prices.
Special report Banks should end 'secretive' trade in food commodities
Financial speculation in key commodities, like wheat and maize, is being linked to recent volatile food prices but attempts to regulate are being delayed by lobbying from the banking sector
Special report How Goldman Sachs started the food speculation frenzy
US Investment bank Goldman Sachs convinced government officials in the early 1990s to allow it to start gambling on the price of food. Alan Bjerga explains how they did it
Special report Food speculation 'boom' linked to volatile food prices
In a major investigation and film, the Ecologist takes a look at how volatile financial speculation on food commodities is causing hunger and poverty in Mexico - and around the world
Special report Mexico's poor suffer as food speculation fuels tortilla crisis
A surge in financial speculation on maize is causing vastly inflated prices for corn tortillas - a sacred staple in Mexico - and threatening the health and livelihoods of the country's poor. Tom Levitt investigates
A guide to food speculation: how to argue with a banker
The financial industry has been quick to dismiss its role in pushing up food prices but with the evidence growing daily the Ecologist cuts through the jargon to explain the reality of food speculation
Using this website means you agree to us using simple cookies.