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Mexico's Undersecretary of Agriculture Víctor Suárez on the campaign for food self-sufficiency

Lea la entrevista en español. 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chat with Víctor Suárez Carrera, the Undersecretary of Food Self-Sufficiency for the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA) swept national elections in 2018. We know each other well, from thirty years of struggles against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). I wanted to further explore the government's new initiatives to stimulate small- and medium-scale production of staple crops and reduce the growing dependence on imports from the United States, documented in my recent report Swimming Against the Tide.

Mr. Suárez is an agronomist with a degree in agricultural economics from the Universidad Autónoma Chapingo (UACh). He has diplomas in Senior Management of Public Entities (INAP) and public policies for the agri-food sector (INAP-Colegio de Posgraduados). He says that his greatest learning came alongside the struggles of the Chinantec, Zapotec and Mixe communities of Oaxaca and Tojolabales of Chiapas, as well as the peasant organizations of the National Association of Rural Producers' Marketing Companies (ANEC), of which he was executive director between 1995 and 2017.

As a federal deputy in the Mexican Congress (2003-2006), he was a member of the Agriculture and Livestock, Economy and Budget and Public Account Commissions, he chaired the Committee of the Center for Sustainable Rural Development and Food Sovereignty Studies (CEDRSSA), and he promoted the Planning Law for Agrifood and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security and the Law for the Protection and Improvement of Mexican Seeds.

He has published several books: ¿Tiene futuro la agricultura campesina? Políticas públicas para la soberanía alimentaria y el desarrollo rural con campesinos (2005); Políticas públicas para la agricultura mexicana con base en el consenso y la certidumbre. El caso de la Ley de Planeación Para la Soberanía y la Seguridad Agroalimentaria y Nutricional (2011); and Rescate del campo mexicano. Organización campesina y políticas públicas posneoliberales (2017). The latter compiles a series of articles and essays he published between 2000 and 2016 in various magazines and journalistic supplements, especially La Jornada del Campo.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) also knows him well because he served on its Board of Directors from 2009 to 2011.

Q: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gave you the new title of Undersecretary for Food Self-Sufficiency. Why? What is the problem Mexico faces with dependence on food imports?

The National Development Plan (PND) 2019-23 identifies food self-sufficiency as a fundamental challenge. It states that the agricultural sector was one of the most devastated by neoliberal policies and says: "... Since 1988, mechanisms that were fundamental for agrarian development were destroyed, public support was oriented to electoral manipulation and the rural population was reduced. This has been disastrous not only for the peasants themselves, but also for the rest of the country: Mexico currently imports almost half of the food it consumes, as well as most of the inputs, machinery, equipment and fuel for agriculture."

"To break the vicious circle between rural prostration and food dependence," the López Obrador administration promoted various programs.

The PND includes Producción para el Bienestar, which is operated by the Undersecretariat for Food Self-Sufficiency of the Secretariat of Agriculture (the undersecretariat I manage). It also includes the support program for the country's coffee and sugar cane growers (which were integrated into Producción para el Bienestar); the Price Support Program for corn, beans, bread wheat, rice and milk crops; the Livestock Credit Program; Fertilizer Distribution; and the newly created Mexican Food Security Agency (Segalmex). Also, from the Welfare Secretariat, we have the agroforestry program Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life).

All these programs are going strong. And in 2023 there is a particular reinforcement of Production for Wellbeing linked to the delivery of free fertilizers from the Fertilizers for Wellbeing program.

Producción para el Bienestar (PpB) offers direct support to 2 million producers of corn, beans, wheat, rice, other grains, cornfields, coffee, sugar cane, cocoa, honey and nopal (the latter as of the end of 2022), with annual amounts ranging from a minimum of 6,000 pesos per producer (about $350) to a maximum of 24,000 pesos (about $1,400). It also has Technical Accompaniment and Support Strategies for Access to Financing.

By 2023, between 1.5 and 1.6 million PpB beneficiary producers (maize, beans, wheat and rice producers) will have access to free fertilizers from the Fertilizer for Wellbeing (FpB) program.

FpB is a program that in 2019 began providing free fertilizers to small-scale producers in the state of Guerrero and was gradually expanded to now extend to the entire republic to serve 2 million producers farming 3 million hectares (about 7.5 million acres), mainly growing grains for human food.

Q: Dependency increased greatly after NAFTA in 1994, in part because of dumping, the export of agricultural products at prices below their production costs. What impact has dumping had on the domestic production of corn, wheat, milk and other foods that Mexicans produce and consume?

Since the beginning of NAFTA, and now for 25 years, Mexico has imported increasing volumes of grains and oilseeds from the United States, in many cases at dumping prices. This was driven by governmental decisions by previous neoliberal administrations before 2018, which facilitated this access, with policies that liberalized the quotas established in NAFTA for corn and beans and without taking measures to address this dumping.

The neoliberal government was trying to ensure that agribusinesses had access to raw materials at low prices and inflation was kept under control, without considering the harmful effects of unfair competition on domestic agricultural production, and without considering the variable and volatile behavior of global markets. International grain prices, which for many years were artificially low, rose faster than Mexican prices during periods of the 2000s and 2010s. In recent years, they have risen significantly due to higher energy prices and the effects on production and trade caused by the war between Russia and Ukraine.

Dumping, coupled with the withdrawal of pro-agricultural institutions and policies (which occurred in the 1980s and 1990s), had the effect of discouraging domestic grain production. Grain imports skyrocketed, while consumption also grew. Today, 48% of grain and oilseed consumption comes from imports with 52% from domestic production.

Corn imports were practically zero in 1993, prior to NAFTA, and by 1996 they exceeded 5 million tons; in 2007 they reached 10.7 million tons, and in 2021 they exceeded 17.7 million tons.

In 2000, Mexico spent $979 million importing corn, wheat, beans and rice. In 2021, this amount reached $7.2 billion. In two decades, dependence on imports of these basic crops has increased sevenfold in terms of dollars spent.

Q: The president came in with a strong mandate for rural development. What did he promise to farmer organizations and rural communities?

While campaigning for the presidency, in April 2018, on a tour of Jerez, Zacatecas, President López Obrador met with peasant organizations from all over the country and showed his commitment to the countryside by supporting a manifesto presented by peasant groups.

He promised to "end the disdain, the abandonment of the countryside and begin a new stage to rescue the countryside, the farmers and their productive activity."

He then declared: "I tell you sincerely that rescuing the countryside is one of the main priorities of our government, we are going to promote productive activities in the countryside as has not been done in a long time, in decades. We are going to return to the countryside." He expressed his dream that there will be no migration, that Mexicans will be able to work, to be happy where they are born, where their families are, where their customs are, where their culture is, and that they will want to leave only for pleasure, not out of necessity.

He offered to "support the productive activity of the countryside" and to seek food self-sufficiency, no longer buying abroad what the country consumes. "We are going to produce in Mexico everything we consume."

He criticized the neoliberals, the corrupt and irresponsible technocrats, who led Mexicans into poverty, marginalization, and increasing insecurity and violence, and who brought about the "ridiculous, the absurdity" of serious dependence on corn from abroad, a food that is native to Mexico.

To remedy food dependency, he said, support will be given to producers, ejidatarios, communal farmers, small landowners, and it will be direct support, which will not remain in the hands of intermediaries. Price supports will be set for agricultural products, and producers will be paid well for their harvests.

He offered to support organic fertilizers and ordered the national Fertimex plant to again produce fertilizer for farmers.

He also offered to grant loans for agriculture and livestock, to repopulate livestock, to plant 1 million hectares of timber and fruit trees in the south and southeast of the country.

Q: The PpB has ambitious goals of promoting small- and medium-scale farmer production. Does it represent a shift in priority from previous governments?

Yes, of course. Unlike the programs that preceded it — Procampo and Proagro — Producción para el Bienestar clearly favors small- and medium-scale producers, up to 20 hectares (50 acres) of rainfed land or 5 hectares (12.5 acres) of irrigated land.

Procampo was born in 1993 as a universal program for grain producers with a specific quota (at the time equivalent to US$100 per hectare) and even those with large-scale farms, or even large landowners who did not farm, qualified as beneficiaries. When this program was transformed into Proagro, a ceiling of up to 80 hectares (200 acres) was set for beneficiaries. Both Procampo and Proagro benefited producers who did not need any subsidy for their activity.

Remember that 85% of Mexico's production units are small- or medium-scale, and they contribute 54% of the value of national production of our 35 main crops. For several crops fundamental to our national diet or our exports of raw materials, the small-farmer share is above that percentage.

So 83.5% of the beneficiaries of PpB (1,872,698 in 2022) are small-scale, with up to 5 hectares (12.5 acres) of rainfed land; they do not have irrigation. In addition, six out of 10 are located in the south-southeast, a region that has been historically neglected and where most of the country's indigenous population is located. According to the final data for 2022, 57.3% of the beneficiaries are located in municipalities with an indigenous population and 34.2% are women.

Q: What results have you achieved with these programs to reduce foreign dependence? And what further achievements are expected in the remaining year of the president's six-year term? Do you expect to reduce food dependence on priority products?

The confluence of strategic programs for the countryside (Production for Wellbeing, Sembrando Vida, Fertilizers and Price Supports, mainly) has allowed for an increase in agricultural production. In 2023, the budget for all these programs grew by 33% over the previous year, and thanks to this we expect an increase in production. In particular, a production rebound is expected thanks to the impact of the Fertilizers for Wellbeing program, which in 2023 grew its budget by 220.8% in nominal terms. The program will involve 1 million tons of fertilizers to support 2 million small-scale producers, mainly growing grains for direct human consumption (corn, beans, wheat and rice), on a total of 3 million hectares (7.5 million acres).

Q: Although the distribution of synthetic fertilizers is increasing, the government puts a lot of emphasis on the promotion of organic production. How is it integrated within PpB?

The Production for Wellbeing program has a Technical Assistance Strategy (EAT) that promotes the transition to agroecology, with gradual or immediate adoption, according to the needs and decisions of individual farmers, through 4,200 field schools established in 800 municipalities in 28 Mexican states.

These field schools focus mainly on corn, coffee, honey, sugarcane, cocoa, beans, milk and milpa (corn intercropped with other food crops). These are farms owned by innovative producers who have already successfully implemented agroecological practices. There they host training sessions and exchanges between producers and EAT technicians and scientists. They also show the results from using bio-inputs.

Q: With these supports, have farmers been able to lower their use of chemical inputs? Have they suffered a drop in productivity? Or are they seeing increases due to higher fertility from healthier soils?

On corn farms within the EAT, we have documented a significant increase in the use of bio-inputs and a reduction in the use of glyphosate. The development of agroecological practices is increasing. We see in many cases an increase in yields in tons per hectare and a reduction in production costs with the reduction in the use of chemical inputs. By 2023 we will have updated results in corn and also in other crops such as cocoa, sugar cane, honey, coffee, amaranth and chia.

Q: What impacts have the reductions in glyphosate applications had? Some commentators have predicted very negative impacts.

The use of glyphosate has dropped even with respect to the reductions established by the Mexican Government via the Ministry of the Environment, based on the Decree of December 31, 2020. In 2021, the granulated glyphosate quota was 16,526 tons and only 45.37% was imported (7,497 tons). In 2022, the quota was cut in half to 8,263 tons and as of the end of November 3,953 tons was imported, just 47.85% of the quota. Imports of technical glyphosate were also significantly below the quota. For 2023, the import quota for granulated glyphosate is 4,131 tons, another 50% cut.

This has had no impact on agricultural production volumes. Although modest, there is a growth trend in agricultural production. While glyphosate imports have fallen, corn production is set to reach 28.5 million tons this year, compared to 26.6 million tons in 2022.

Q: MORENA is promoting laws on public health and the right to food. What do these proposals mean? Will they ensure that your efforts continue beyond the current six-year term?

There has been good progress on the General Law of Adequate and Sustainable Food, which has already been approved in principle. It was approved by the Second Legislative Studies Commission and the United Commissions of Welfare and Social Development of the Senate of the Republic and was given its first reading in the Plenary of the Senate. It is expected to go to second reading in September for discussion and final approval.

This law, promoted by Senator Ana Lilia Rivera Rivera, is based on a 2011 amendment to Article 4 of the Constitution, which enshrined the human right to food, establishing that: "Everyone has the right to nutritious, sufficient and quality food. The State shall guarantee it." It is also the result of 25 years of struggle and social mobilization, especially by the National Campaign "No Corn, No Country."

The law provides for the creation of the National Intersectoral System of Health, Food, Environment and Competitiveness (SINSAMAC), which would be the collaborative body between the three levels of government (Federation, States and Municipalities), citizens and food committees. SINSAMAC would promote actions to guarantee the right to adequate food and foster the production, supply, distribution and consumption of nutritious, sufficient and good-quality food. It would strengthen the country's self-sufficiency, sovereignty and food security and promote the generation of sustainable food environments that encourage the informed consumption of healthy and nutritious food.

It also provides for federal, state and municipal agencies to make at least 15% of their government purchases of food and primary inputs directly from small and medium-scale agricultural, fishing and forestry producers. It will lead to the creation of strategic reserves of basic grains and seeds to overcome shortages and provide continuity to productive activity.

If this law is passed, it will have a transgenerational impact, promoting healthy eating.

As for the bill to gradually prohibit the use of highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs), also presented by Senator Rivera Rivera and supported by a group of MORENA senators, it is on hold because a different group of MORENA offered a counterproposal linked to business interests that, instead of prohibiting these pesticides it only regulates them. The bill is held up in the Senate.

Q: How can the Price Support Program (PPG) counteract the negative impacts of dumping?

A first step is the decoupling of the white-corn price from the Chicago grain exchange and from the dumping-level prices for yellow corn, which harms U.S. producers as well as Mexican producers.

Q: How is the government using Price Supports and government purchases to raise the price of white corn in Sinaloa in the face of the recent 30% drop in the international price of corn from its recent high levels? The Chicago reference price was under 5,000 pesos/ton, far below farmers’ costs of production.

Between June and August, during the harvest of the fall/winter 2022-23 production cycle, we implemented a novel supply-management mechanism in the state of Sinaloa. It allows non-genetically-modified white corn to be freed from the formulas used to determine corn commodity prices.

This will set a very important precedent to better value Mexico’s white corn, which — it is very important to say — is not transgenic, and to treat it as a "specialty crop” because it has better nutritional qualities than yellow corn. Yellow corn is the commodity crop traded on the Chicago grain exchange and predominantly used as animal feed.

In the fall/winter 2022-23 cycle, Sinaloa produced about 5.5 million tons of white corn, about 20% of Mexico’s total production, its usual share of national white corn production.

The novel mechanism, implemented by the federal government and the state government of Sinaloa, calls for both parties to purchase a total of 2 million tons with a guaranteed price of 6,965 pesos/ton ($US407/ton), well above the reference price on the Chicago board of trade.

Of these 2 million, 1.5 million tons are purchased by the federal government from small-scale producers with up to 15 hectares of land and average yields of 11 tons/hectare. The state government is set to purchase 500,000 tons from medium-scale producers farming up to 50 hectares.

This is supported by the Presidential Decree on transgenic corn and glyphosate, published last February 13, to prevent the use of transgenic corn for human consumption, and by the Federal Government putting a prohibitive 50% tariff on the importation of white corn. The latter occurred in the middle of the Sinaloa corn harvest and was published in the Federal Official Gazette on June 26, 2023, effective until the end of 2023.

This created a reduction in supply in Sinaloa. The remaining 3.5 million tons of Sinaloan white corn that remained available belongs to producers with more than 50 hectares of land, larger-scale producers whose operating costs are lower than those of smaller-scale producers and who have negotiating capacity. These 3.5 million tons are being marketed now at differentiated prices, at levels agreed upon by producers and buyers, and with the understanding that the available supply is scarce.

International corn commodity prices are rising due to the termination of the agreement which, in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, allowed the flow of exports from the producing countries of that region to markets outside the region. Our strategy is aimed at structurally differentiating non-GM white specialty corn for human consumption from commodity corn prices.

This is an achievement because white corn can be valued fairly. The price supports applied correspond to the cost of production plus a profit. This is a formula that should always be applied to value agricultural production, as is the case with any commodity in any other sector of the economy.

The strategy challenges the validity and fairness of international commodity exchanges. In the past, Mexico’s fall/winter and spring/summer white corn prices were connected to commodity prices in the Chicago futures exchange, by means of so-called "indifference price" formulas, which were set at prices to make buyers “indifferent” to whether they import from the U.S. rather than buying domestically. This generated perverse types of blackmail by the buying companies, which are large and oligopolistic, such as Cargill, Maseca, Minsa and other consumers of feed corn. It allowed them to buy white corn without recognizing its higher value. The federal government spent millions of dollars in subsidies to compensate producers for the low indifference price and to move the grain.

We understand that Sinaloa in the north is quite far from the center-south and an important part of its harvest moves to these markets with significant transportation and storage costs. During the entire period of neoliberal governments, especially after the Free Trade Agreement came into effect, the prices for specialty non-GM white corn were undervalued by still applying the commodity price to them. It resulted in the repeated theft of millions of dollars from producers.

Of the 2 million tons the government is procuring at the guaranteed price, 800,000 will go to [Mexican food agency] Diconsa for its network of rural stores. The rest will constitute a reserve, which will gradually be released in the market and will have to be replenished with harvests from the next spring/summer cycle. Having a reserve in the hands of the State is crucial for dealing with any climatic problem or artificial shortage that may occur. The strategy in Sinaloa is a first step and will be fine-tuned and replicated in future harvests.

The multiple effects of this strategy are that first, it guarantees the marketing of crops from 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. It is a policy that decouples local and national prices from international markets, which are highly speculative, volatile and alien to the real conditions of production in the countryside.

Q: In the long term, does the government have a strategy to reduce imports of GM yellow corn?

The strategy has three pillars. One of them involves promoting the local production of vegetables that can replace corn in animal feed, such as the cassava tuber, which is an important source of starch and protein; another is fodder beets, which have a high starch content.

The second involves promoting meetings between U.S. corn producers willing to plant and offer non-GM yellow corn with buyers who traditionally purchase GM yellow corn, in order to establish marketing agreements with favorable contracts for both parties, a process that has already begun. There has already been a first meeting and more will follow.

The third strategy involves promoting the cultivation of non-transgenic yellow corn within Mexico, in areas where there is a demand for yellow grain for feed.

Q: The president's executive order to restrict the use of glyphosate, ban the planting of GM corn, and reduce or eliminate its importation has a lot to do with public health and the environment. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says Mexico is in violation of the UMSCA or T-MEC agreement and that the decree is not based on science.

Yes, it is based on science. CONAHCYT already has a database and extensive academic studies. The February 2023 decree is based on science and does not violate the T-MEC. As our Secretary of Economy, Raquel Buenrostro, has said, Mexico does not fear a dispute panel because it will demonstrate that the decree has not caused significant losses to U.S. exporters because it does not restrict imports, only the use of GM corn in masa and tortillas. And it 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.

Lea la entrevista en español.


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