MEXICO CITY (AP) — Corn has begun sprouting on the hillsides south of Mexico’s capital, although it’s not clear if those shoots will have enough water to grow or if a farmer can afford increasingly expensive fertilizer.
What is known is that the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants Mexicans to produce more food for themselves in order to move towards self-sufficiency in key products and to control the prices of basic foodstuffs.
The president’s idea, which includes cash payments to rural families for growing crops and technical advice, is not new, but the devastating effects of the pandemic, climate change and market turmoil caused by the war in Ukraine have given it new urgency. The government wants to prevent food insecurity in a country where 44% of the population lives in poverty and where, according to government data, 27.5 million tons of corn are produced but more than 40 million tons are consumed.
Some farmers are hoping for additional government financial assistance and fertilizer subsidies. Others are suspicious of the government’s plans. But everyone is hoping that this year’s harvest will be enough to feed their families and, with luck, some more to sell in their communities.
As the G7 countries look for global solutions and the United States and development banks prepare a multi-billion dollar plan to reduce food insecurity, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations welcomes Mexico’s efforts to secure its staple food, but does not expect quick results.
“We are not seeing a drop in food prices, at least this year,” said Lina Pohl, the organization’s spokesperson in Mexico.
The government said it hopes those involved in the program will increase corn and bean production by about two-thirds.
Brothers Arturo, Benjamin and Victor Corella, three teachers who have been cultivating family plots since retirement in Milpa Alta in the very south of Mexico City, know that everyone is having a hard time, but they are full of optimism because after just one year in ” Sowing of Life” or “Sembrando Vida” is one of López Obrador’s signature programs – they harvested 1.5 tons of corn instead of one.
“The most important reason for planting is that (the whole family) is self-sufficient in corn, no need to go out to buy tortillas, but rather try to make it yourself,” Benjamin said. Now, he says, a government technician is teaching them planting strategies, boosting yields.
The Sowing of Life was advertised as an ambitious reforestation program that aimed to plant a million hectares of trees to produce fruit and lumber. It was also hoped that by providing rural families with a steady source of income and a monthly cash payment, they would keep more of them on their land rather than migrate north.
But the program also included a lesser-known option that López Obrador now hopes to step up. Some members may receive monthly payments to grow what is known in Mexico as “milpa” – corn, beans and squash grown together, as has been done for centuries.
The Seed of Life program has an investment of nearly $4 billion and participation from about 450,000 growers, each receiving a monthly payment of $225 from the government. However, the actual number of people involved is much larger, because each grower needs to farm 2.5 hectares of land to qualify – more than many farmers – and often entire families or even communities pool their land like cockatiels.
While the government uses the program to counter its less than outstanding environmental record and doubts about its scientific basis, few question its social impact.
Based in the Mexican Ministry of Social Security, not in agriculture, it creates jobs and food by supporting farmers with technical advice and monitoring.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization sees it as a “fundamental program” to help small farmers improve their quality of life and produce healthier food.
Ariadna Montiel, secretary at the social welfare ministry, said the goal is to expand the program and offer new support to those already enrolled so they can cultivate more land, grow new crops, or start producing and using organic fertilizers.
This is what the Corella brothers mean.
Montiel said the results of the effort will be visible in four or five months when the corn is harvested, but only producer communities are likely to see prices for these staples drop. “If we think about these very poor families who are guaranteed (food self-sufficiency), we get rid of the worry,” 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 ensure their food programs reach the most marginalized.
Strong economies, including the US, Japan and European countries, have also chosen to become self-sufficient by subsidizing certain products, even though it is more expensive to buy from their producers than it is to import them.
In the late 1990s, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was negotiated, many Mexicans began buying cheaper American corn and stopped farming their land.
While FAO defends self-sufficiency efforts in food production, it emphasizes that international trade is critical to all economies.
Some Mexicans returned to the land without government assistance for personal or ideological reasons.
“Planting plants is an act of resistance” in the face of Mexico City’s growing urban sprawl, said Ana Martinez, an assistant accountant and single mother who decided to farm on her grandfather’s land in Milpa Alta during the pandemic.
“This is about shaping consciousness in the community, not about leaving the earth,” she said. Martinez belongs to a land protection collective and spends part of his weekends weeding in preparation for the first harvest. She said the government program could help some people, but she viewed it as a charity. “With earth we can survive.”