Liberalization and Corn

Liberalization and Corn

corncrossbreedingOne topic I’ve been interested in throughout my research is the importance of corn in Mexico, and what aspects of its meaning have evolved and stayed the same throughout history. In “The Environmental and Social Impacts of Economic Liberalization on Corn Production in Mexico” by Alejandro Nadal, Nadal gives context to the state of the Mexican economy post-NAFTA, and explores the environmental and economic impact of liberalization.

This liberalization of the corn sector — essentially a deregulation of international trade flows — is a result of the North American Federal Trade Agreement, which required Mexico to open its corn sector to imports in exchange for access to US and Canadian markets. (Nadal 14)

Nadal establishes early on that corn is the most important commodity for Mexico; it is a source of livelihood for over 3 million producers, 8% of Mexico’s population and 40% of all people working in the agricultural sector (Nadal 4).

Nadal also references an earlier occurrence that set the stage for NAFTA and has its own effects on the trajectory of the Mexican economy: The Mexican government’s own efforts of structural adjustment in the wake of the 1982 economic crisis.

The new economic model which emerged in 1986 went beyond deregulation of international trade flows: it also included a set of monetary and fiscal policies in addition to those targeting exchange and interest rates.

…In this new model, monetary policy played a critical role in the opening of the economy and was a key instrument for attaining price stability. It was also going to be accompanied by the deregulation of the financial sector (Nadal 14).

Nadal provides the context for NAFTA in the first part of his study, as well as its economic impact; in its fifth part, he discusses migration, soil erosion, and genetic diversity, which he refers to as “three environmental and social issues of prime importance for the future of Mexico’s corn sector,” (Nadal 12).

While he admits there is little reliable information on soil erosion in Mexico, available numbers indicate it is a major issue.

Loss of topsoil, fertility reduction, salinization and accumulation of agrochemical residues, are important problems in Mexico. Both water and wind erosion affect a significant proportion of arable land. For example, 67% of Mexico’s agricultural land by surface area is affected by water-led erosion (Turrent 1997). One of the central reasons for this is that whilst most Mexican agriculture takes place on land with slopes of at least 4%, tilling practices are not adapted to preventing or arresting erosion processes (Nadal 81).

This results in thinner soils and an increased vulnerability to drought in the northern regions of Mexico especially, while water-led erosion greatly impacts its southern regions. The expansion of livestock rearing in response to increased migration is also to blame for soil erosion:

Areas subject to heavy migration are liable to see an increase in grazing pressure as livestock rearing replaces labour-intensive cultivation such as corn (Nadal 85).

As migration increases in certain areas, manual labor-based jobs die out; Nadal cites Mexico’s southern sierras, where labor shortages and “degraded capacity to manage common land” contributes to topsoil erosion.

It is clear from Nadal’s analysis that corn, the state of the Mexican economy, and its environment are delicately interconnected. While NAFTA’s role in its current state cannot be ignored, it’s certainly not the only factor at play.

“Improving” Mexican Corn

Matchett writes about the historical context and results of an unsuccessful, collaborative program in the 1940s between the Rockefeller Foundation’s Office of Special Studies and the Mexican government’s Office of Experiment Stations in creating an improved breed of corn.

For decades, it was well-known that crossbreeding corn leads to far better results than self-fertilizing. Matchett cites Darwin’s “The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom,” published in 1876, in which he came to the conclusion that crossbred corn is superior to inbred in height as well as yield. 

BreedingCorn Fig 5.JPG
Photo by Farmwest

George Shull, a “notable inbreeder of corn,” experimented with inbreeding corn and found that “naturally cross-fertilized species such as corn were indeed composed of
innumerable pure lines” (349).

In Shull’s view, a field of corn was made up of as many hybridizations of pure lines as there were corn plants. Corn breeders would do well, he thought, to identify the optimal, most desirable of these hybridizations and create entire commercial fields of them (349).

Matchett highlights the invention of “single crosses,” whose yields were generally between 5-15%, with one “tiny minority” whose yield was up by 35% and another whose yield was an unprecedented 170%. However, she noted that while farmers could “greatly benefit” from these high-yielding hybrids, “the hybrid seed of these single crosses would have been very expensive to produce on a commercial scale” (350).

The seed that would be sold to farmers – that would give high yields – was itself formed on the ear of the female inbred plant that distinctly did not yield well. Therefore, seedsmen would need to grow a huge number of parent plants to produce large amounts of commercial seed. This was simply not profitable enough for seed companies to invest.

This dilemma led to the creation of “double crosses,” “a controlled cross between two single crosses,” (350). Double crosses were uniform and yielded well, with a low enough cost for companies to make a profit.

“By 1940, most farmers in the U.S. corn belt had switched from open pollinated varieties to hybrid.” (350) In the U.S., some experiments with synthetic varieties were conducted, which entailed a different process from hybrid ones:

Likewise, breeders could forego the glassine bags and combine the inbred lines through less highly-controlled crosses by planting the inbred lines together in a field and allowing them to cross-pollinate at random. (351)

Synthetic corn, unlike hybrid, could be “propagated through open pollination and their seed could be saved,” (351).

These characteristics (especially the capability of seed being saved and replanted) were seen as an advantage, thus an interest in synthetic corn rose. However, hybrid yields remained the most ubiquitous:

“Ultimately, the ‘practical advantages’ of synthetics were not sufficient. Double cross hybrids made it into the rich soil of the corn belt of the United States and synthetics did not. Double cross hybrids dominated the landscape and the market because both farmers and seed companies found them advantageous. Hybrids offered farmers high enough yields to offset the higher price they paid for seed (which in 1936 cost roughly twice that of open-pollinated varieties.” (352)

This interest in the creation of synthetic corn that would be cost-effective, and more advantageous to farmers than hybrid varieties, set the scene for the collaboration between the Rockefeller Foundation and Mexican government.

“Technicians at the Mexican experiment stations would provide the Rockefeller Foundation program with inbred lines, and the RF staff would evaluate the most promising lines from the experiment stations as well as their own lines from recent collections. Experiment station staff would plant and evaluate the test crosses, RF scientists would breed improved varieties, and the improved corn would be available to farmers within a few years.” (346)

“Staff in both programs were intensely practical. In both agencies, they focused on yield and production as the central aspects of “improvement.” But they differed over how best to approach these problems, and they had distinct secondary priorities.” (368)

Matchett contends that the Office of Special Studies and the Office of Experiment Stations’ corn breeders had conflicting approaches and values that ultimately led to the program’s failure:

“That the synthetic varieties formed by such a method would be highly variable was of little concern; in fact, Wellhausen and Mangelsdorf considered the variability to be an asset, since it would make the improved corn more adaptable to the multiple unpredictable microenvironments in which it would grow. While conventional hybrid corn hovered in the back of their minds, the practical demands of increasing production prompted them to think beyond the hybrid model.” (368)

The Office of Experiment Stations’ corn breeders “valued a longer term breeding process centered around extensive inbreeding that would eventually lead to double cross hybrids and higher per-acre yields,” and, unlike the Rockefeller Foundation’s corn breeders, embraced the time-consuming process.

“Government-supported re search programs in Mexico had a long history of inconsistent funding, frequent reorganization, and staff turnover that accompanied each new presidential administration. Mexican breeders, by achieving results after many years of work, would bring an important national project to completion.”

“Finally, in social and biological terms, many Mexican researchers thought of locally grown corn varieties as unwieldy mixtures of what had been, and ought to be, pure varieties. Researchers at the Instituto Biote’cnico in the 1930s and the Office of Experiment Stations in the 1940s insisted that their primary job was to reverse the damage caused by subsistence farmers’ careless mixing of crop varieties.”

Ultimately, it is in these differences that led to the abandonment of the project. In her paper, Matchett emphasizes that there is a false, simplistic narrative being perpetuated that the Office of Special Studies emphasized hybrid corn — to benefit wealth farmers “who could afford hybrid corn and the necessary agricultural inputs,” — and the Office of Experiment Stations emphasized open-pollinated corn, showing concern for Mexican farmers to save seeds.

Critical Race Theory and NAFTA’s Investment Chapter

Jose E. Alvarez’s analysis of NAFTA through the lens of Critical Race Theory opens with the assertion that “what the U.S. government does, by way of treaty, serves to
entrench or even exacerbate racial and ethnic divides within
other nations – as well as within our own,” (Alvarez 303)

Alvarez hones in on NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which governs foreign investment. He notes that the chapter is a “direct descendant” of the U.S. model bilateral investment treaty, but is simultaneously a strengthened version of prior ones.

The rhetorical power of the NAFTA investment chapter — its perceived legitimacy among traditional international lawyers — needs to be compared to some troublesome realities on the ground. The rhetoric of the NAFTA investment chapter is that of scrupulous neutrality and equal protection. Its text is grounded in symmetrical and reciprocal rights as between the NAFTA parties and their investors. This befits the treaty’s claim that it is a “fair” contract between “sovereign equals.” The reality is quite different. There is no actual symmetry of direct benefits to the national investors of all three NAFTA parties — at least not for the foreseeable future. As few Mexican investors
are likely to be in the position to penetrate the U.S. market, it is almost exclusively U.S., not Mexican, nationals that get the benefit of the investment chapter. (Alvarez 304)

Alvarez points out that the beneficiaries of this trade agreement are almost all U.S. nationals. He goes on to say that American, not Mexican, companies will be the
ones “relying on the NAFTA to renege on their prior promises to litigate in local courts.”

He makes it clear that despite NAFTA’s rhetoric that suggests there is an equality in assumption of duties, that ultimately, U.S. firms will be the ones to profit from the arrangement.

[American firms] not small- or medium-sized Mexican firms, will be reaching for supposedly “impartial” international arbitration to resolve investor-state disputes; they, not Mexican
nationals, will be able to challenge local ordinances as de facto confiscatory measures or as breaches of the NAFTA prohibition on performance requirements. U.S. firms will be the ones claiming the direct benefits of free unencumbered repatriation of profit. (Alvarez 305)

Alvarez questions why there has not been a proper analysis of the lasting impact of NAFTA. He writes that “the social, cultural, and political costs of investment liberalization
were not factored into the economists’ models that produced this treaty,” (Alvarez 306). He adds that the focus of the economic models that produced the chapter focus on Mexican gross national product rather than equity.

Even assuming that the sanguine estimates of economists prove correct with
respect to the growth of the Mexican economy as a whole, no one
knows whether the widening gap between Mexican elites and the
desperately poor, along racial and ethnic lines, will only be exacerbated by FDI nor what the resulting social and political costs will be if the gap increases. (Alvarez 306)

Alvarez challenges the rhetoric in NAFTA that suggest its effects will be colorblind and class-blind, resulting in economic growth for those who earn it. He points to Mexico’s class and race divide, and how the two interconnect, highlighting the fact that those Mexicans who do benefit will only be the top percentage of wealth-holders in the country.

The bottom line is that instead of the comprehensive, balanced, and truly reciprocal investment regime that it purports to be, the NAFTA investment chapter is merely a short-sighted, one-way ratchet to reward and attract U.S. capital. Even those who assume that the attraction of foreign capital provides its own reward ought to be concerned should this treaty’s imbalances undermine its promise to supply stable and enduring rights for foreign investors. (Alvarez 310)

Alvarez even brings up how immigration into the U.S. will be impacted by the effects of NAFTA, whatever they may prove themselves to be. Alvarez’s analysis was published in Winter 1996/1997, and his prediction of the outcome was eerily close to what ended up happening. He predicted the disastrous results when we try to ignore how race and class intersect and factor into everything when formulating economic policy.

Works Cited

Alvarez, José E. “Critical Theory and the North American Free Trade Agreement’s Chapter Eleven.” The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, vol. 28, no. 2, 1996, pp. 303–312.

Matchett, Karin. “At Odds over Inbreeding: An Abandoned Attempt at Mexico/United States Collaboration to ‘Improve’ Mexican Corn, 1940-1950.” Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 39, no. 2, 2006, pp. 345–372.

Nadal, Alejandro. “The environmental and social impacts of economic liberalization on corn production in Mexico.” WWF International, 2001, pp. 12-81.