The author takes a trip to Mexico to see the ‘green revolution’ firsthand — and what she finds is shocking.
August 6, 2010
The Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative promises a second Green Revolution that will feed a planet of nine billion people by doubling crop yields by 2050. But considering that we produce enough food to feed the planet today and a billion people still go hungry, are yields really the problem? And if they are, are providing Green Revolution technologies like hybrid and genetically engineered seeds, chemical fertilizer and pesticides to subsistence farmers the best way to achieve them? I visited subsistence farmers in Mexico to find out.
The homes of campesinos, peasant farmers, in the rural areas surrounding Cuquio, Mexico (about an hour from Guadalajara) no longer have dirt floors. The Mexican government initiated a program to replace them with cement floors in 2008 and now most homes sport a plaque celebrating their new piso firmes. Electricity came about 20 years ago. For many, running water and bathroom facilities are modern conveniences they do not yet have. The government has recently distributed composting toilets to many, but not all, families.
One of the tiny adobe homes is decorated by flowers growing in upside-down Coca-Cola bottles turned into flower pots. Another is located next to a fencepost sporting an empty bag of Monsanto corn seeds — seeds presumably planted in the adjoining cornfield, or milpa. This little corner of the world and the people who live here seem to be forgotten by everyone except for Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and multinational agribusiness corporations like Monsanto and DuPont.
The campesinos here are easy prey for savvy, first-world corporate marketers. Many have only a sixth-grade education, and they know how to grow their traditional milpas of intercropped corn, beans and squash because they learned the techniques practiced by generations before them, often first handling a horse and plow at the tender age of 6. They know their lives are hard and that some years they don’t produce enough food to eat. Moreover, they are desperate to give their children better lives through education, but subsistence farming does not come with a salary and many cannot afford the fees, supplies or uniforms required by schools. Several express regret (or even despair) that their children had to drop out of school to work at the local shoe factory for 500 pesos per week — about $1.05 per hour with current exchange rates. A new technology that could provide enough food and perhaps some income would be welcome.
The tragedy is that a quick assessment of the soil reveals the causes of low corn yields and the problems are simple to fix. Mexican agronomist Juan Quesada Alba says the soils here are very acidic, with pHs as low as 4.2. Most crops prefer soil that is slightly acidic and can even tolerate a pH that isn’t quite ideal, but 4.2 is extreme. The clay soil does not allow water penetration, magnifying the impacts of both droughts and floods. He finds that amending the soil with rich compost and a small amount of chemical fertilizer can easily increase yields. High amounts of organic matter in the soil act as a buffer against suboptimal soil pH. Adding “cal” — the same slaked lime added to corn to make tortillas — to the soil would raise its pH, also improving growing conditions for the corn.
Alba is a proponent of planting maiz criollo, the traditional Mexican corn seeds developed through millennia of careful seed selection, instead of the hybrid and genetically engineered seeds offered by the agribusiness giants. However, he recommends campesinos change how they select their seeds. While campesinos select for the biggest mazorcas (ears of dried corn), he says they should instead consider the qualities of the entire plant. Maiz criollo is much taller with bigger mazorcas compared to hybrid and transgenic strains, he says, and often they blow over in the wind. If campesinos knew to select seeds from plants with strong stalks that could withstand the wind, within a few years the majority of their corn would not blow over. When asked if campesinos could benefit from a new, genetically engineered drought-resistant corn (as biotech companies claim to be creating), Alba responded that there are already varieties of maiz criollo that can withstand an entire month without water.
A trip into one of the many agrochemical and seed retailers in the area provides very different solutions from those advocated by Alba. Products by Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, and more are all available in this remote corner of Mexico. Monsanto’s DeKalb brand advertises with an ear of corn with wings and the slogan “Un ángel en tu tierra” (“An angel in your land”), whereas DuPont’s Pioneer brand offers “El más alto rendimiento” (“The highest performance”) and “Buena calidad de grano” (“Good grain quality”). In addition to selling campesinos packages of seeds and accompanying agrochemicals, these corporations offer a chance at modernization, giving up the backward ways of the past to finally enter the 21st century of agricultural technology. At least, that is how the seeds and chemicals are sold and often perceived.
One woman named Lola says the hybrid Monsanto seeds, tractor and agrochemicals make growing corn less work than it used to be. However, she adds, the frogs have all died. She blames the pesticides, which her teenage sons apply without any protective clothing. Sometimes her younger children find the pesticide containers and play with them, and without frogs, the pond in her yard is full of mosquito larvae. A man in a nearby village tried planting hybrid seeds once. He was disgusted that he had to purchase so many expensive chemicals to go with them, and he wasn’t happy with his crop. He’s returned to planting maiz criollo, which he believes is tastier and healthier for his family. Another man says he grows maiz criollo only because he is too poor to afford hybrid seeds. Each year he hopes to grow enough to feed himself, his wife and the three of his 12 children who still live at home. Last year he did not grow enough.
Like so many campesinos in the area, his tiny 1.25 acre plot is surrounded by fields owned by rich men who grow corn or raise cattle for sale, not for subsistence. He inherited nearly four acres from his parents, but sold the rest to pay a debt a decade ago. His family has no fruit trees and no livestock, so they subsist entirely on a diet of corn, beans and some squash. One of his sons, Gustavo, age 23, lives a mile away with his girlfriend and three children. With no land of their own and little available work in the area, they often go hungry. Unfortunately, Gustavo’s family is unable to provide much help.
Dr. Ann Lopez, author of The Farmworkers’ Journey and founder of The Center for Farmworker Families, has been traveling to this part of Mexico for 12 years. She hasn’t seen an improvement in quality of life due to Green Revolution technologies. “Once you degrade your soil with the chemicals,” she says, “you need to use more chemicals each year to get the same yields.” This phenomenon forces families who adopt the Green Revolution technologies onto a roller coaster of needing to come up with more money each year, either from selling corn or gathered wild tubers called camotes, or with money sent from relatives in the United States. (Finding a job locally is also an option but most people said there was no work. The shoe factory only employs perhaps 100 people.)
Increased corn yields could provide a family a surplus of corn to sell, but corn isn’t worth very much in post-NAFTA Mexico. Before, NAFTA, farmers in this area could sell corn to the Mexican government for a fair price. Once Mexicans were forced to compete with subsidized U.S. corn farmers, the price of corn fell by about half. Lola, who uses hybrid seeds and agrochemicals, says the most she’s ever earned in a year by selling corn is 800 pesos (a little less than $70).
Campesinos say they had few problems with pests prior to the adoption of agrochemicals. Today, many talk of of plagas, pest infestations, affecting their crops. In this environment of minimal education and lax regulation, the pesticides sold to defeat the pests present a severe human health and safety hazard. Ann Lopez reports that pesticides that are banned or designated as Restricted Use Pesticides in the United States are sold freely in Mexico. Paraquat, an herbicide so toxic that one teaspoonful can be fatal, is among the most widely used agrochemicals in this part of Mexico. The carcinogenic herbicide 2,4-D is also sold in Mexico, often in combination with 2,4,5-T. Together, a 50:50 mixture of the two chemicals constitutes Agent Orange.
The chemicals are so toxic a woman told Lopez her daughter became sterile just by working in an agrochemical retail shop among the fumes from closed bottles of chemicals. Yet, campesinos often apply the chemicals with backpacks and handheld pumps, wearing sandals and no protective clothing whatsoever. Some believe myths like “agrochemicals are only poisonous if the farmer is smoking cigarettes or drinking while applying them” or “insecticides are harmful but herbicides are safe.” Warning labels on the bottles are of limited help as some people are in this part of Mexico are illiterate. The local doctor in Cuquio says that two of every 10 patients who visit him during the rainy season months of June through October each year are poisoned by agrochemicals. Three or four die each year.
The problem with using Green Revolution technologies to fight hunger is that the technologies do not address the root causes of low yields (poor soil), nor do they address the other root causes of poverty and suffering among subsistence farmers. Birth control, education, health care, sensible economic policy to create jobs, fair trade policies, uncorrupt governments, and simple public infrastructure like paved roads and trash collection are all necessary to raise the quality of lives of campesinos in west central Mexico. Foisting industrialized agriculture on an uneducated public has instead resulted in massive soil erosion, causing the rivers and streams to run brown with silt, and harmed the most valuable asset campesinos have: their land and its ability to produce food.
To view my daily diaries of this trip, visit my blog. If you wish to help the people in this area of Mexico, please donate generously to the Center for Farmworker Families. The non-profit uses all donations to give aid directly to poor Mexican families living on both sides of the border.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..