MEXICO CITY – Corn is beginning to appear on the hillsides south of the Mexican capital, although it’s unclear whether those sprouts will hold enough water for planting or whether farmers will be able to afford increasingly expensive fertilizers.
What is known is that the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants Mexicans to produce more of their own food in order to move toward self-sufficiency in key products and control the prices of basic foodstuffs.
The president’s idea, which includes providing technical advice to rural families and cash payments to grow crops, is not new, but the devastation caused by the pandemic, climate change and market disruption created by the war in Ukraine has given it new significance. The government wants to avoid food insecurity in a country where 44% of the population lives in poverty and produces 27.5 million tons of corn, but more than 40 million tons are consumed, according to government data.
Some farmers hope to receive additional financial assistance from the state and subsidized fertilizers. Others doubt the government’s plans. But everyone hopes this year’s crop will produce enough to feed their families and, fortunately, more to sell in their communities.
As G7 nations search for global solutions and the United States and development banks prepare a multibillion-dollar plan to alleviate food insecurity, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization welcomed Mexico’s efforts toward self-sufficiency in staple foods, but did not expect it. Fast results.
“We don’t see food prices going down, at least this year,” said Lena Paul, FAO Representative in Mexico.
The government said it hoped participants in the program would increase their production of maize and beans by about two-thirds.
Brothers Arturo, Benjamin and Victor Corilla – three teachers who, after their retirement, were farming family plots in Melba Alta in the southernmost part of Mexico City – know everyone is having a hard time, but are optimistic that after only a year in “Sowing Life,” or “Sembrando Vida” – One of Lopez Obrador’s signature programs – they harvested half a ton of corn where they had only had one previously.
“The most important reason for farming is that (the whole family) is self-sufficient in corn, not having to go buy tortillas, but trying to do it ourselves,” Benjamin said. Now, he said, a government technician is training them through their cultivation strategies, improving their payoffs.
“Sowing Life” has been announced as an ambitious reforestation program that aims to plant 2.5 million acres of trees that produce fruit and timber. It is also hoped that giving rural families a sustainable source of income and a monthly cash payment will keep more of them on their land rather than migrating north.
But the program also included a lesser-known option that Lopez Obrador now hopes to amplify. Some registrants can choose to receive monthly payments for planting what is known in Mexico as “melpa,” the corn, beans, and squash planted together as they have for centuries.
Sowing Life invests nearly $4 billion and approximately 450,000 participating farmers, each of whom receives a $225 monthly payment from the government. However, the real number of people involved is much greater, because in order to qualify each farmer needs to plant about six acres – an area larger than the land many farmers own – and often whole families or even communities of their land like Corellas.
Despite the government’s use of the program to counter its less than stellar environmental record and doubts about its scientific underpinnings, few have questioned its social impact.
She works in the Ministry of Social Welfare – not Agriculture – which is a ministry that provides work and food by supporting farmers with technical advice and monitoring.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations considers it a “core programme” that helps small farmers improve their quality of life and production in healthy ways.
Ariadna Montiel, secretary of the Ministry of Social Welfare, said the goal is to expand the program and provide new support to those already registered so they can grow more land, add new crops or start producing and using organic fertilizers.
That’s exactly what the Corella brothers think.
The results of this effort will be seen within four or five months when the corn is harvested, Montell said, but only farmers’ communities are likely to see prices for these staple foods drop. “If we think of these families, who are the poorest, and by ensuring this[food self-sufficiency]we remove the concern,” she said.
If they have more than they can eat themselves, they can sell it locally or to the government at a fair price to supply its food programs to the most marginalized.
Strong economies including the United States, Japan, and European countries have opted for self-sufficiency in addition to subsidizing some products, although buying from producers is more expensive than importing.
In the late 1990s, with the North American Free Trade Agreement, many Mexicans began buying cheaper American corn and then stopped cultivating their land.
While the FAO advocates for self-sufficiency in food production, it asserts that international trade is critical to all economies.
Some Mexicans returned to the land without government assistance for personal or ideological reasons.
“Agriculture is an act of resistance” in the face of Mexico City’s growing urbanization, said Anna Martinez, accounting assistant and single mother. During the epidemic, Martinez decided to start cultivating her grandfather’s land in Melba Alta.
“It’s about generating awareness in the community, not giving up” the land, she said. Martinez belongs to the Earth Defense group and spends part of her weekends weeding in preparation for her first harvest. She said the government program may help some people, but she considers it a charity. “With Earth we can survive.”