MEXICO CITY (AP) – Corn has started to sprout on hillsides south of the Mexican capital, though it’s unclear if those sprouts will have enough water to grow or if the farmer will be able to afford the increasingly expensive fertilizer.
What is known is that the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants Mexicans to produce more of their own food in order to move towards self-sufficiency in key products and control the prices of basic foodstuffs.
The president’s idea of giving rural families cash payments to grow crops and technical advice is not new, but the ravages of the pandemic, climate change and market turbulence created by the war in Ukraine gave it a new urgency. The government wants to stave off food insecurity in a country where 44% of the population lives in poverty and where 27.5 million tons of maize are produced, but more than 40 million tons are consumed, according to government data.
Some farmers are hoping for additional state financial aid and subsidized fertilizers. Others are wary of the government’s plans. But all hope that this year’s harvest will produce enough to feed their families and, hopefully, a little more to sell in their communities.
As G-7 countries seek global solutions and the United States and development banks prepare a multibillion-dollar plan to alleviate food insecurity, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Agriculture welcomes Mexico’s efforts towards self-sufficiency in staple foods, but does not expect quick results.
“We don’t see food prices going down, at least this year,” said Lina Pohl, the organization’s representative in Mexico.
The government has said it hopes program participants will increase their maize and bean production by about two-thirds.
The brothers Arturo, Benjamín and Víctor Corella, three teachers who, in their retirement, cultivate family plots in Milpa Alta, in the far south of Mexico City, know that everyone is going through a difficult period, but they are optimistic because after only a year at “Sowing Life”, or “Sembrando Vida” – one of López Obrador’s flagship programs – they harvested 1½ tons of corn where they had previously only gotten one.
“The most important reason for planting is that (the whole family) has self-sufficiency in corn, not having to go out and buy tortillas, but rather trying to make it ourselves,” Benjamín said. Now, he said, a government technician is accompanying them in their planting strategies, thus improving their yield.
“Sow Life” was presented as an ambitious reforestation program aimed at planting one million hectares of trees producing fruit and timber. It was also hoped that giving rural families a sustainable source of income and a monthly cash payment would keep more of them on their land rather than migrating north.
But the program also included a lesser-known option that López Obrador now hopes to amplify. Some enrollees could choose to 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 “Sow Life” program has an investment of nearly $4 billion and some 450,000 participating producers, each receiving a monthly payment of $225 from the government. The actual number of people involved is much larger, however, as to qualify each producer must cultivate 2.5 hectares – more land than many farmers – and often entire families or even communities pool their land as Corellas.
Despite the government’s use of the program to counter its lackluster environmental record and its doubts about its scientific foundations, few have questioned its social impact.
Housed within Mexico’s Ministry of Social Welfare – not Agriculture – it generates work and food by supporting farmers with technical advice and follow-up.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations considers it a “fundamental program” helping small farmers to improve their quality of life and produce in a healthier way.
Ariadna Montiel, secretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs, said the aim was to expand the program and offer new support to those already registered so that they can cultivate more land, add new crops or start growing. produce and use organic fertilizers.
This is precisely what the Corella brothers have in mind.
Montiel said the results of the effort will be seen in four or five months when the maize is harvested, but only the farming communities are likely to see the prices of these food staples drop. “If we think of these families, who are the poorest, having this guaranteed (food self-sufficiency), we take away a 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 for the most marginalized.
Strong economies, including the United States, Japan and European countries, have also opted for self-sufficiency, subsidizing certain products, even if buying from its producers costs more than importing.
In the late 1990s, with the North American Free Trade Agreement, many Mexicans began to buy cheaper American corn and stopped farming their land.
While the FAO champions self-sufficiency efforts in food production, it stresses that international trade is crucial for all economies.
Some Mexicans have returned home without government assistance for personal or ideological reasons.
“Planting is an act of resistance,” in the face of Mexico City’s growing urban sprawl, said Ana Martínez, assistant accountant and single mother, who during the pandemic decided to start cultivating her grandfather’s land in Milpa Alta .
“It’s about generating awareness in the community, not abandoning” the land, she said. Martínez belongs to a land defense collective and spends part of his weekends weeding in preparation for his first harvest. She said the government program might help some people, but she saw it as charity. “With the land, we can survive.”