Our stories are shaped by the feasts we share and the food we eat. For the holidays, we’re dishing up a 3-part series on familiar foods with surprising backstories. Part Three: Mexico is the birthplace of corn, and corn is the “source of life.” But the unique genetic resources of native maize — and the social structure and cultural identity that evolved along with the crops — are under threat from powerful agribusiness, global trade agreements and GMOs.
Read Part One: Is Synbio Vanilla “Natural”? Heck, No! and Part Two: What Does Bill Gates Have To Do With Ethiopian Chickens?
Did you know a full third of the human population depends on corn as a staple food? It’s one of the most commonly grown grains in the world, second only to rice. Corn is also considered a high-risk for being GMO.
Genetically modified corn became available in 1996, engineered to tolerate chemical weed killers or produce their own insecticide. Today, at least 92% of U.S.-grown corn and more than 80% of Canadian-grown corn are genetically modified to do one or both of these things. But the ubiquity of GMO corn stops at the southern border. Mexico is both the birthplace of corn and the repository of thousands of invaluable, locally-adapted varieties.
Cultivating GMO corn for commercial use is prohibited on Mexican soil, and President Lopez Obrador has pledged to end imports of GMO corn — most of which come from the U.S. It takes some serious grit to banish the pet technology of powerful agri-chemical corporations. The reasons behind this bold move reach deep into the soil, into the rural landscapes of Mexico’s small-holder farmers, and into the past.
Maize in Mexico
Corn is part of a family of cereal grain domesticated in Mexico close to 9,000 years ago. Indigenous Taino people called it mahiz, meaning “source of life” in the local dialect, from which we get the modern term, “maize.”
Today, maize production is critical to food security and political stability in Mexico. It is at the heart of Mexican cultural, agronomic and gastronomic life.
This spiritual and social importance contrasts deeply with genetically modified corn’s commodification, degradation and devaluation — a difference that was already palpable when the North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”) nearly destroyed traditional Mexican agriculture.
NAFTA and native maize
In the early 1990s, NAFTA — the first iteration of a trade agreement between Mexico, Canada and the United States — was a mere glint in the eye of North American leaders and lobbyists. Mexican farmers grew enough maize for most domestic consumption, saving and sharing seed as part of the stewardship of small-holder farming. The government protected the market by only allowing foreign corn imports if the domestic supply faced a shortfall.
North of the border, American farmers also grew corn. U.S corn, however, was a far cry from the 21,000+ native varieties grown in Mexico. It was a commodity crop grown from high-yield hybrid seeds, destined for biofuels, animal feed and highly processed packaged goods, or sold to overseas markets. Robust federal insurance programs and subsidies made U.S. corn cheap.
NAFTA opened Mexican markets to highly subsidized U.S. corn. American agribusiness giants flooded the Mexican market at less than the cost of production. The Counter describes NAFTA’s impact during its first decade, when “U.S. corn exports to Mexico quadrupled, while the price of domestically-grown corn in Mexico crashed by nearly 70 percent.” With their livelihood all but wiped out, many agricultural workers abandoned farming altogether, migrating to urban centers — and eventually across the border — searching for jobs. And when farmers leave the land, native maize loses its key caretakers.
Native maize varieties have much to recommend them: They often perform better under difficult conditions, in poor soil and mountainous areas. On the other hand, modern hybrids prefer flat plains and mechanized harvesting. Native maize varieties are optimized for a range of local conditions, fostering unique traits that are crucial as we adapt to climate change.
Diversity is the bedrock of native maize varieties, but in global markets that favor consistent output, it sometimes works against producers. Foreign buyers look for massive quantities of identical ears and kernels that can be processed and packaged at scale. The things that make native maize genetically valuable can also make it a niche product.
And once GMOs arrived on the scene, that cornucopia faced a new threat.
Foreign seed has long posed a threat to native maize. In 2005, Mexico passed a biosecurity law to limit genetically modified corn cultivation in Mexico. Sadly, the law was not iron-clad, and Big Ag already had its eye on the Mexican market. Before long, biotech corporations planted experimental plots of GMO corn in Mexico’s northern states, and pollen from the genetically modified corn ultimately contaminated native maize.
Wind pollination isn’t the sole source of contamination. According to agribusiness writer and researcher Tim Wise, “The most pervasive form of [contamination] isn’t pollen on the wind, it’s kernels of maize in people’s pockets.” When people carry corn seed over longer distances, it becomes that much harder to maintain the integrity of native maize varieties. After all, no one can tell if a kernel nestled in the palm of their hand contains patented DNA. And once that kernel grows, it can contaminate nearby stalks. GMOs that are released into the environment cannot be recalled.
While GMOs spread north of the border, the kernels traveled south. Contamination by modified and patented DNA is well documented, threatening the genetic resources of one of the world’s most important crops.
Glyphosate, be gone!
The preservation of Mexico’s cultural and genetic heritage is only gaining steam. On the last day of 2020, Mexico’s president announced the phasing out of GMO corn imports as well as glyphosate, the weedkiller most commonly used with GMO crops. Mexican courts rejected the move by corporate giants to lift Mexico’s biosecurity restrictions, ruling instead to protect biodiversity and the right to a healthy environment.
These decisions reflect the knowledge that the “source of life” is inextricable from Mexico’s cultural heritage and social fabric. The team at A Growing Culture argues convincingly that culture and agriculture are inseparable:
“The gateway to environmental erosion is cultural erosion. When the fabric of communities is weakened through industrialization, the careful stewardship of the land, the embeddedness, and the knowledge of these communities are weakened as well.”
A truly nourishing and equitable food system emerges from the essential interconnectedness of people and land, tradition and innovation. Industrial-style agriculture driven by transnational corporate interests disrupts this interconnectedness, with devastating consequences for both people and the planet. The triumph of culture and biodiversity over capitalism and Big Ag signals a brighter future.