Karen Lehman, Senior Fellow, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
On May 30, in a gritty outer ring settlement of Monterrey, Mexico, over 400
men, women and children assaulted a grain train and carried its cargo off to
their homes. Shouting "We're hungry!," women hauled off the contraband in
buckets and two-year-old children carried it gingerly across the tracks in
plastic bags. At the end of the day, 40 tons of corn had disappeared into
the community of San Nicolas de la Garza.
For hungry people in Mexico, the new economic order isn't working.
In 1993, Mexican farmers produced nearly as much white corn as the 80
million people in Mexico needed for their staple food, tortillas. This
year, two years after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) and one year after the Mexican peso devaluation, analysts estimate
that Mexico will need to import nearly six million tons of corn to meet
national demand -- and there is little corn to be had on the world market.
Mexico has only eight days worth of corn in reserve. The nation could slide
into famine if the rains fail and if the policies put in place to conform to
Shortages in Mexico and on the world market can be traced, in part, to
forces beyond human control, such as bad weather, and to human conflicts,
such as war. Like Texas and Oklahoma, northern Mexico is baking under a
relentless sun. War in Chiapas has created the conditions for widespread
hunger in that region. But the families who attacked the train near
Monterrey were doing more than feeding their families in times of adversity
-- they were thumbing their noses at the Mexican government and its decision
to bet the future of the Mexican food supply on the global marketplace.
With the Grain Train Robbery, Mexico has become the poster child of food
insecurity in a global economy.
At the behest of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and later,
U.S. negotiators of the NAFTA, the Mexican government systematically
dismantled its farmers' capacity to produce corn and other basic grains over
the past 15 years. With rosy projections of low world grain prices from the
Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute in their pockets, Mexico's
trade negotiators and agriculture policymakers greatly reduced credit,
technical assistance and marketing aid to grain farmers, focusing the
nation's resources instead on export crops such as fruits and vegetables.
"Sell high, buy cheap" was their motto -- until the combination of the
Mexican peso devaluation and shortages in world grain supplies sent grain
It shouldn't have taken a train robbery for policymakers to realize that
these policies are leaving the cupboard bare. Farmers' organizations
pleaded for credit programs and help with marketing, but the government
believed World Bank assessments that high grain prices are a temporary
glitch in the transition to the global economy. Thousands of acres remain
unplanted and production has fallen 20 percent. The national corn marketing
agency, CONASUPO, has only been able to acquire 750,000 tons of grain of the
2.3 million planned, compared with five million tons acquired from the
previous harvest. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have been forced off the
land into cities in Mexico or have crossed into the United States. =20
What's happening in Mexico isn't an anomaly -- it's simply the first tremor
of a global trend that will rock the foundations of all of our societies if
governments don't act decisively, and soon. In Argentina, a highly
productive agricultural exporter, the poor are literally eating cats.
Bolivia, which depends on outside sources for 70% of its food, teeters on
the edge of famine.
The access to food is a fundamental human right. It may also be the key, in
the next decade, to social stability and democracy. This fall, thousands of
government bureaucrats, food activists, agribusiness executives, and farmers
will converge in Rome for the World Food Summit sponsored by the Food and
Agriculture Organization. Its purpose? To develop a plan of action to
guarantee food security across the globe into the 21st century. The people
from San Nicolas de la Garza won't be there. But the image of families
hauling grain away from a train should be present as governments decide
whether to leave food security in the hands of the marketplace, or take a
more active role in guaranteeing citizens access to their daily bread.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
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Minneapolis, Minnesota 55414 U.S.A.
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