When Mexicans take to the streets September 29 to celebrate National Corn Day, an annual commemoration of the iconic crop’s cultural, culinary and economic significance, they will be applauding the Mexican government’s recent moves to restrict genetically modified corn. But they will also be supporting an expansive set of food-self-sufficiency initiatives long demanded by the national movement Sin Maiz No Hay Pais (No Corn, No Country).
U.S. government attempts to stop Mexico’s restrictions on genetically modified (GM) corn have garnered the headlines, as the U.S. takes Mexico to the formal dispute-resolution process under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement. But the food self-sufficiency policies may be the bigger story.
One of the architects is Victor Suárez, former leader of the farmer organization ANEC and now the Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food Self-Sufficiency, a new post created by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador when he took office in 2018. I recently had the chance to interview Suarez about those initiatives. He remains optimistic that if, as many observers expect, López Obrador’s Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA) wins elections next year and holds power for another six years under a new president, the efforts could have a profound and lasting impact. Claudia Sheinbaum, current governor of Mexico City, has been chosen as MORENA’s 2024 presidential candidate.
As someone who has studied Mexican agriculture for 30 years, I was struck by how profound some of those changes are. IATP has published the full interview, in English and Spanish, but I offer here some highlights and impressions.
Suárez told me that it has taken time to rebuild the social and physical infrastructure for rural development decimated by three decades of rule by neoliberal governments committed to reducing the government’s role in the economy. New programs reversed that decline, all with an explicit focus on small and medium-scale producers, those neglected by previous governments.
The new initiatives included: a reform of the main farm subsidy program, a new price support initiative, an agroforestry program to increase soil fertility on small-scale farms, and a commitment to promoting a transition to agroecological farming while at the same time restoring Mexico’s capacity to produce its own synthetic fertilizers.
Suárez is particularly proud of Production for Well-Being, the main farm subsidy program under his direction. “Unlike the programs that preceded it — Procampo and Proagro — Producción para el Bienestar has a clear orientation in favor of small- and medium-scale producers.”
Where large-scale farmers captured most of the subsidies under the old programs, they are entirely excluded from this one, a bold, if controversial, move. Now 84% of the beneficiaries, nearly two million farmers, are small-scale producers, 60% of them in the previously neglected southeastern part of the country, the indigenous communities most neglected by neoliberal governments.
Similarly, the Sembrando Vida (Planting Life) agroforestry program works exclusively with small-scale farmers, providing technical support and a significant long-term subsidy to help them establish fruit and timber trees to stop soil erosion, increase soil fertility and increase carbon sequestration.
“In 2023, the budget for all these programs grew by 33% over the previous year,” he told me, “and thanks to this we expect an increase in production.” In part, that may come from a dramatic expansion in the Fertilizers for Wellbeing program, which tripled its budget in 2023 and is expected by next year to produce all the nitrogen fertilizer Mexico needs from rebuilt national plants fed by the country’s petroleum production.
He bristles at the notion that this is inconsistent with the government’s stated commitment to agroecology, arguing that producers need a transition period to restore productivity while they gradually reduce dependence on fossil-fuel-based inputs. That transition is being promoted by his program’s Technical Assistance Strategy, which draws lessons from projects he developed when he was in the farm movement. A network of trained agronomists support communities in some 4,200 field schools across the country to adopt agroecological farming.
Time will tell if the government can achieve that transition with synthetic fertilizer made more affordable and widely available.
“The development of agroecological practices is increasing,” he says, now that the program is fully established. “We see in many cases an increase in yields… and a reduction in production costs with the reduction in the use of chemical inputs.” That includes a significant drop in the use of the herbicide glyphosate, slated to be phased out completely next year as part of the president’s decree limiting GM corn use in tortillas. The government is ahead of schedule in meeting that target, eliminating more than half the chemical’s use with no measurable negative effect on production.
Suárez is also proud of a bold and risky initiative unfolding now in the northern state of Sinaloa, where the corn harvest that began in May saw a precipitous drop in international prices. The fall in prices could well signal a return to agricultural dumping, when below-cost imports undercut domestic producers, a pattern I documented in my recent report, Swimming against the tide.
To combat low international prices, the government deployed its price support program to buy up 30-40% of the harvest from small and medium-scale producers at prices well above market rates. The goal is to support those farmers while taking that corn off the market, some for use in subsidized food programs and some for a strategic reserve. The program should eliminate the oversupply at harvest time and put large-scale producers in a position to demand higher prices from the large tortilla-flour companies that regularly bid down prices paid to farmers.
Suárez call this “a novel supply-management mechanism” that ensures that Mexico’s non-GM white corn “is valued fairly.”
In the past, the government would step in with marketing subsidies that bailed out large-scale farmers while giving buyers access to cheap corn. No more. The government has supported the new measures by cutting off access to white corn imports, which the companies would use to bid down farm prices. The restrictions on GM corn for use in tortillas cut some imports, including from the U.S., and a 50% tariff reduced imports from other countries.
Suárez says the government is considering an initiative to formally delink Mexico’s white-corn market from the price-setting mechanism that now ties white to yellow corn prices through the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
“The multiple effects of this strategy,” he explains, “are that first, it guarantees the marketing of crops to small-scale producers at a fair price (which covers costs and provides an acceptable profit). Second, it reduces the supply available on the market to allow for fair negotiation between larger-scale producers and buyers. Third, we establish a strategic reserve of white corn, a fundamental food for the Mexican diet. And finally, we enact a public policy with an impact now on white corn in Sinaloa, but which aims in the future to become broader and involve other strategic crops for food security and rural social welfare.”
Mexico’s supply-management initiative should resonate with U.S. efforts to break the dependence of large-scale farmers on government subsidies. The Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment recently published a supply-management scheme for the U.S.
Suárez offers additional useful detail in the full interview. He is concise in his response to U.S. officials who say Mexico’s GM corn decree violates the USMCA and is not based on science. As he told Reuters in an earlier interview, "Their science is the Word of God. That is not science, that is ideology.
He reiterated to me that the Mexican government “will demonstrate that scientific studies point to health and environmental risks for a country with such a diversity of corn and such a high consumption of minimally processed corn. We have the right to protect public health and the environment.”