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“Policy Space for Mexican Maize”

February 2007

The recent news about rising corn prices in Mexico (and here in the US), in part a result of growing demand for “clean biofuels” such as ethanol, warrants focusing on a variety of actors such as farmers’ and indigenous peoples’ movements, researchers and environmentalists who are looking at these issues in a more holistic manner and for us all to ask tough questions about “easy” solutions.

Former Grassroots executive director Tim Wise (now with the Global Development And Environment Institute at Tufts University) recently authored a paper on protecting agrobiodiversity and promoting rural livelihoods in Mexico titled, “Policy Space for Mexican Maize: Protecting Agro-biodiversity by Promoting Rural Livelihoods.”

Similarly, one of Grassroots’ Brazilian partners, the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights published a paper last year on “The WTO and the Devastating Impacts of the Sugarcane Industry in Brazil” looking among other things at the effects of rising demand for sugarcane-based ethanol on Brazilian farmers, agriculture and the environment. And Grassroots’ Mexico partners, such as the National Union of Autonomous Regional Farmers’ Organizations are leading the good fight in Mexico to renegotiate NAFTA’s agriculture chapter and get the WTO out of agriculture.Below is an introductory excerpt of Tim’s paper, which can be downloaded in full from the GDAE website.

“Since the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, traditional maize farmers in Mexico have faced difficult economic conditions. In barely more than a decade, as many as one million farmers may have abandoned their land under economic pressure from rising imports, low prices for maize and other traditional crops, weak local and regional demand, and large reductions in public sector support for agriculture.

The losses are environmental as well as economic. With the loss of traditional maize, there has been a documented loss of the agricultural biodiversity of which these farmers and their ancestors have been stewards for centuries. With maize trade scheduled to be fully liberalized under NAFTA in 2008, many farm groups are calling for a renegotiation of the treaty’s agricultural provisions to prevent further damage.

This policy analysis examines the room for alternative policies policies in Mexico under existing economic and environmental agreements, including NAFTA. It finds that the Mexican government could, even without a renegotiation of parts of NAFTA:

  • Justify the imposition of protective tariffs as countervailing measures to counter high U.S. subsidies to its corn farmers.
  •  Expand its own government support for the maize sector, since its current support remains billions of dollars below the country’s allowable limits under the WTO.
  • Use its participation in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to restrict imports from the United States, which contain large quantities of genetically modified corn.

It concludes that the Mexican government retains access to many useful policy instruments that could promote rural livelihoods while arresting the losses of important maize diversity. What is lacking is the political will to make use of them.”

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