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8 July 2010

There is only one of me to go around, so thanks to Structurally Maladjusted (are any of us Latinamericanist cyber-wonks NOT “maladjusted”?) for bringing attention to the long article by Peter Canby in The Nation, “Retreat to Subsistence” on the centrality of corn to Mexico and the destructive effects of NAFTA and GM seed on both Mexico’s heritage and its survival:

Maize—”corn” in the vernacular—is, in the amount produced, the largest grain crop in the world. In most places it is grown as animal feed; but in Mexico, for reasons unique to the country’s culinary history, it provides some 70 percent of the caloric intake of rural families. Part of the process of making tortillas and tamales in Mexico is the pre-Columbian practice of lime cooking known as “nixtamalization,” which increases the availability of calcium, amino acids and niacin in corn. Nixtamalization makes maize—especially when combined with beans—a complete protein. In the Popul Vuh, the ancient Maya book of origins, the first men are made of corn; part of the sway that corn holds over the region is that it evolved here. Archaeobotanists believe that some 9,000 years ago in the Rio Balsas valley in the Mexican state of Guerrero, early agriculturists began cultivating teosinte, a native grass, by carefully selecting for a series of mutations that included a sealed seed head and multiple rows of kernels attached to a central axis.

To this day, indigenous farmers continue to comb their fields for successful plants with useful characteristics, saving their seeds and exchanging them with neighbors. This process is central to indigenous culture in Mexico, and through continuous breeding indigenous agriculturists have internalized and accelerated the process of not just crop domestication but also plant evolution. In the Mexican countryside there are fifty-nine corn “landraces,” distinct cultivars that have been carefully developed over millenniums by indigenous farmers for different attributes: growth at high altitudes, early or late maturation, the ability to withstand drought or heavy rain and utility for particular dishes or shamanic rituals.

Landrace preservation, moreover, reflects a larger issue. Mexico has long been recognized as one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. Along its mountainous spine, the climate ranges from neotropical to Nearctic. Over time, as the earth has warmed and cooled, various plant communities migrating between North and South America have become isolated among Mexico’s deep valleys and high peaks, where they have evolved in exotic isolation. Indigenous cornfields in Mexico are known as milpas. Typically, milpas contain not just landrace corn but also squash, beans and other crops that farmers have coaxed out of their biodiverse surroundings through astute and assiduous husbandry. Because so many staple crops evolved in the region, it is considered a “center of origin” of crops, one of the few in the world.

What’s particularly notable about Mexican cornfields are the “weeds” that coexist with more established crops and, in many cases, have herbal and culinary uses. A 2004 report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an environmental organization created by a side treaty of NAFTA, noted that “this group of species are not ‘weeds'” in the narrow American and European sense. “The relationships of Mexican poor peasants with their ‘weeds’ may be quite complex,” and weeds “represent a rich genetic resource on which selection towards domestication may take place.”

And this is only the beginning of the story.  Read it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jose Garcia permalink
    8 July 2010 6:44 am

    WTF? This part of the article made me so upset. ………….Castañeda observes that it was “unclear…whether the rest of Mexican society should continue to subsidize 2.5 million families that will never escape from poverty growing corn on barren, rain-fed, tiny plots of land.”

    When are we going to ask, How much longer is Mexican society going to support this failing government? How can they expect this noblest and humblest of people compete in a capitalist market that is even more ruthless than that of the Unites States? It seems like the corporate structure in Mexico modeled after this saying that my primo in Monterrey once said, ” Aquí, el que no chinga, pierde.” Mexico’s capitalist market is so unfair, Just look at what companies like coca-cola do; small neighborhood stores are only allowed to carry coke products. In return,they are allowed to sell coke products, and they are provided with a monthly stipend to help with elctric bill. I don’t know if they still do that in Mexico, since I have not been there since 2000. They need to first give them a fighting chance to sell their crops at a fair price in stores…and that’s another thing. If Mexico starts selling mass cultivating this “GM Corn” , the common Mexican will be able to tell the difference in taste. I don’t think that the quality will be the same.

  2. 8 July 2010 7:10 am

    The farmers and scientists… and consumers (for the most part) … in Mexico don’t agree with Castañeda, either — it’s a long article and I could only quote a couple of paragraphs from the beginning.

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