NAFTA has increased U.S. food imports from Mexico and Mexican imports of U.S. corn, spelling trouble for both Mexico's small farmers and its corn.

Mexican Corn: Traditional Farming Practices, NAFTA, Variety

The North American Free Trade agreement (NAFTA), at the same time that it has increased U.S. food imports, has increased Mexico's reliance on U.S.-produced corn. Corn, used to make the dough for tamales, tortillas, and gorditas, is Mexico's primary food. Corn tortillas still make up over half the daily caloric intake for many poor Mexicans.

Corn is believed to have originated in Mexico's Tehuacan Valley, some time, it appears, before 5300 BC. The germplasm present in Mexican corn varieties remains important in corn development and improvements worldwide, according to Alejandro Nadal (2000).

Traditional Small-Scale Production Methods

Mexican corn production has been traditionally small-scale low-tech, done by some of the world's poorest farmers. The Mexican government both regulates corn prices and subsidizes corn, which it has done to keep quality high and consumer prices low. It's generally argued that NAFTA has not harmed Mexico's corn farmers. But farmers from Mexico's south, from regions with little migration to the U.S. before NAFTA, increasingly seek work in the U.S. The genetic diverisity of corn may be at stake as well.

Corn Diversity: Issues

Diversity is affected if fewer corn varieties are grown as a result of fewer farmers, even if the amount of corn grown remains constant. Diversity may also be affected if genetically-modified (GM) corn is planted (Mexico's government has, at least not yet, particularly embraced the planting of GM seeds), particularly if marketers of these dominate local seed suppliers, or if herbicides also marketed by GM seed makers become widely used but only the GM seeds are resistant to these. Lawsuits against farmers who sell seeds that contain some GMs can also discourage farmers from planting other varieties of corn.

Subsidies and NAFTA

Farm subsidies in the U.S. help U.S. corn to undersell Mexican. According to Oxfam's Duncan Green, U.S. corn subsidies have allowed U.S. corn to be sold in Mexico at 19% below production cost, which Green says has cost Mexican farmers about $99.00 U.S. per acre.

Meanwhile, in its own effort to profit from NAFTA, Mexico's government has focused some of its subsidies on its biggest agribusinesses, making these, including Grupo Bimbo (Mexico's biggest baker goods company) and Grupo Maseca (Mexico's biggest tortilleria), some of the biggest businesses in the world. The result has not always been more jobs either, but again, an equally important issue may be variety.

Mexico's Increasing Corn Imports

Beginning in 1994 with NAFTA and a desire for less regulation, corn, primarily yellow corn (used in corn starch, corn syrup,and animal feed), has been increasingly imported by Mexico, according to the USDA's Steven Zahniser (2006), while fruit and vegetable products from Mexico have been increasingly imported by the U.S. However since 2001, the sweeter white corn that forms the backbone of many Mexicans' diets has also been imported, Zahniser says. According to Jonathan Fox of the University of California (Santa Cruz; cited by McClatchy's Tim Johnson), since NAFTA, corn imports which made up "7 percent of Mexican consumption" have increased "to around 34 percent," though it's still mostly yellow corn used in animal feed and industry that's being imported.

Subsidies of Mexico's Agribusinesses

Zahniser nevertheless believes that Mexican corn production has remained mostly steady since NAFTA, because of the Mexican government's own agricultural and consumer subsidies of corn and tortillas. But not as many farmers are growing corn.

According to Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times (2010), "Procampo" was created in Mexico when NAFTA took effect, with a goal of enabling Mexico's poorest farmers to compete with U.S. farmers. Wilkinson however cites research that suggests that, "as much as 80% of the money went to just 20% of the registered farmers."

Wilkinson's sources include the newspaper El Universal, which obtained information "through the Mexican equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act," according to Wilson. Wilson says that subsidies went to, among others, "three siblings of billionaire drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman," who heads the Sinaloa cartel; and to the brother of a former Guzman partner, supposedly to grow corn and other crops. Most of Mexico's organized criminals maintain legitimate agricultural business interest side-by-side their criminal operations, Wilkinson explains. The subsidies are paid on a per "hectare" basis, and only in 2009, says Wilkinson, were any caps placed on how much any one individual or business could receive.

NAFTA and Population Displacement, Immigration

Currently according to the Wilson Center, which cites population statistics from the Consejo Nacional de Población (CONAPO; cited in OECD, Agricultural and Fisheries Policies in Mexico), the number of people living in Mexico's rural areas has actually increased slightly, to 24% although that number is projected to decline to 21% by 2030. But, the Wilson Center says, the small farmers in rural areas are asset-poor and increasingly marginalized.

According to McClatchy's Tim Johnson (2011), ". . . when the North American Free Trade Agreement linked Mexico, Canada and the U.S. in 1994, . . . Mexico . . . said it would 'export goods, not people.'" But, says Johnson, perhaps two million Mexican farm jobs have been lost since, to U.S. corn imports and to Mexican subsidies which may favor agribusiness.

Johnson argues that areas where the poorest farmers live have had the highest rates of migration due to NAFTA and to Mexican subsidy policies. Johnson cites as an example, ". . . the rolling hills of western Oaxaca state, ancestral lands of indigenous Mixtecs who till small plots of corn, beans and squash." In any case, the number of small corn farmers is declining, with many of farmers from the Mexico's south now numbering among agricultural workers coming from Mexico into the United States.

Exodus and Increased Fertilizer Use in Mexico

Besides planting less corn (and perhaps thus fewer varieties) in Mexico, small farmers since NAFTA have relied more on fertilizers. Johnson explains that, with their caretakers leaving, the number of livestock, "goats, cattle and burros," which previously provided manure for fields, have declined too. "You have no choice but to buy fertilizer now," he quoted elderly Josefa Soriano: "If you don't fertilize, nothing grows, not even fodder."

Increased Planting of Illicit Crops?

Another result of NAFTA and Mexico's "Procampo" subsidies, according to Wilkinson's Los Angeles Times report, may be increasing growth of marijuana and other illegitimate crops.

NAFTA Pluses and Minuses for Mexico

The "plus" for Mexico is that corn and tortilla prices, which tend to rise with increasing demand for ethanol (and may be rising ten times as fast as Mexico's minimum wage) may be kept down by imports, says the USDA's Zahniser. The down side of NAFTA includes a possible decline in the genetic diversity of Mexican corn, as small farmers abandon farming. And, while the adoption of higher-tech production methods by Mexican corn farmers may someday enable them to gain a larger share of the market, this may not by itself solve the problem of declining genetic diversity.

Increasing Poverty

Mexican corn farmers face increasing poverty. A Woodrow Wilson Center report cites a World Bank (2008) World Development Report, which argues that Mexico's farmers need to investigate higher tech methods. (Smaller farmers, the Wilson Center report notes, have limited access to credit however.)

Monsanto, GMOs, and Corn

Some of the larger farmers are doing just that. Perhaps that's the reason that, several years ago, according to Reuters News (2007), "[a] large group representing small corn farmers . . . signed a good-will deal with Monsanto," one of the U.S. companies hoping to enter the Mexican seed market with GMO strains.

Monsanto gives producers abroad price breaks on GMO technologies whereas in the U.S., where the government promotes the use of GMOs, and where GM crops are dominant (80% of U.S. corn is under Monsanto patents; DuPont, Syngenta, and Dow are other suppliers of U.S. seeds), farmers must pay full price for these. (Note: some states in the U.S., however, including California, have required labeling of some GM products.)

Mexico has towed a line between acceptance and rejectance of GMOs. In 2009 Mexico permitted plantings of GMO strains at test sites. According to Jonathan Benson (2011), in 2009, Mexico allowed Monsanto "to plant small GM corn test sites" provided that Monsanto could prove both "that its crops were resistant to pests and pesticides," and "that they could provide economic benefits to Mexico." However, Mexico has decided against "further expansions of the Monsanto test sites," until at least more safety studies are conducted. Gutiérrez-González (2010) however believes that current Mexican law provides inadequate protection to its corn stock against the GMs.

Inferiority of GMOs?

According to Nadal, Mexico's local corn "landraces" ("landraces" are local varieties that have developed without much human control) would outperform "the best U.S. hybrid seeds . . . in most of the environments in which corn is produced" in Mexico. Nadal adds that this fact is "cautiously concealed by official government spokespersons." Nadal says also that, since local corn varieties tend to outperform even the high-yield GM crops, the GMs have not penetrated the corn stock the way they have penetrated, for example, the wheat stock.

GMOs, Herbicides, and Pesticides

According to the "Farmers' Guide to GMOs," "[a] general perception about GM crops is that they decrease" farmers' needs for herbicides and pesticides. The report notes however that increased herbicide resistance by weeds, which have picked up traits from the GM crops, together with the rate of appearance of new pests, may mean "more and not less overall pesticide [and herbicide] use on GM crops." Another problem may be GMO developer's efforts to control their GM seed stocks, and the ensuing lawsuits. However some crops, such as the banana, which have already been tinkered with by humans so as to reproduce only without seeds, may benefit in some ways from tinkering by GM crop producers.


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