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Why Mexico's small corn farmers go hungry

(Monday, March 3, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Tina Rosenberg, NY Times: MEXICO CITY-- Macario Hernández's grandfather grew corn in the hills of Puebla, Mexico. His father does the same. Mr. Hernández grows corn, too, but not for much longer. Around his village of Guadalupe Victoria, people farm the way they have for centuries, on tiny plots of land watered only by rain, their plows pulled by burros. Mr. Hernández, a thoughtful man of 30, is battling to bring his family and neighbors out of the Middle Ages. But these days modernity is less his goal than his enemy.

This is because he, like other small farmers in Mexico, competes with American products raised on megafarms that use satellite imagery to mete out fertilizer. These products are so heavily subsidized by the government that many are exported for less than it costs to grow them. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, American corn sells in Mexico for 25 percent less than its cost. The prices Mr. Hernández and others receive are so low that they lose money with each acre they plant.

In January, campesinos from all over the country marched into Mexico City's central plaza to protest. Thousands of men in jeans and straw hats jammed the Zócalo, alongside horses and tractors. Farmers have staged smaller protests around Mexico for months. The protests have won campesino organizations a series of talks with the government. But they are unlikely to get what they want: a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, protective temporary tariffs and a new policy that seeks to help small farmers instead of trying to force them off the land.

The problems of rural Mexicans are echoed around the world as countries lower their import barriers, required by free trade treaties and the rules of the World Trade Organization. When markets are open, agricultural products flood in from wealthy nations, which subsidize agriculture and allow agribusiness to export crops cheaply. European farmers get 35 percent of their income in government subsidies, American farmers 20 percent. American subsidies are at record levels, and last year, Washington passed a farm bill that included a $40 billion increase in subsidies to large grain and cotton farmers.

It seems paradoxical to argue that cheap food hurts poor people. But three-quarters of the world's poor are rural. When subsidized imports undercut their products, they starve. Agricultural subsidies, which rob developing countries of the ability to export crops, have become the most important dispute at the W.T.O. Wealthy countries do far more harm to poor nations with these subsidies than they do good with foreign aid.

While such subsidies have been deadly for the 18 million Mexicans who live on small farms — nearly a fifth of the country — Mexico's near-complete neglect of the countryside is at fault, too. Mexican officials say openly that they long ago concluded that small agriculture was inefficient, and that the solution for farmers was to find other work. "The government's solution for the problems of the countryside is to get campesinos to stop being campesinos," says Victor Suárez, a leader of a coalition of small farmers.

But the government's determination not to invest in losers is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The small farmers I met in their fields in Puebla want to stop growing corn and move into fruit or organic vegetables. Two years ago Mr. Hernández, who works with a farming cooperative, brought in thousands of peach plants. But only a few farmers could buy them. Farm credit essentially does not exist in Mexico, as the government closed the rural bank, and other bankers do not want to lend to small farmers. "We are trying to get people to rethink and understand that the traditional doesn't work," says Mr. Hernández. "But the lack of capital is deadly."

The government does subsidize producers, at absurdly small levels compared with subsidies in the United States. Corn growers get about $30 an acre. Small programs exist to provide technical help and fertilizer to small producers, but most farmers I met hadn't even heard of them.

Mexico should be helping its corn farmers increase their productivity or move into new crops — especially since few new jobs have been created that could absorb these farmers. Mexicans fleeing the countryside are flocking to Houston and swelling Mexico's cities, already congested with the poor and unemployed. If Washington wants to reduce Mexico's immigration to the United States, ending subsidies for agribusiness would be far more effective than beefing up the border patrol.