Maize And Agricultural Vulnerability In Mexico

Maize is the staple grain of Mexican cuisine and is the most essential contribution to the nutrition and sustenance of Mexico's population. By some estimates, maize contributes up to 50% of total calories consumed in Mexico, and up to 70% in rural areas (Fritscher Mundt, 1999).

Maize also has great cultural significance. From its initial domestication, it has had a central role in the evolution of Mesoamerican religion, mythology, social organization, and economy (León-Portilla, 1988). In the mid-1990s, it was estimated that anywhere from 2 to 3 million Mexican farmers were involved in white maize production, primarily on farms of less than 5 hectares (Nadal, 1999). In 1998, despite two decades of declining producer prices and increased maize imports, over half of Mexico's total cultivated area was planted in maize, primarily under rainfed conditions (SAGARPA, 2000). Today, Mexicans consume over 11 million metric tons of maize annually (SAGARPA, 2000).

Maize is thought to have been first domesticated in Mexico's central highlands, in the valley of Tehuacan, and subsequently adapted by smallholder farmers to a wide range of environmental conditions and social uses (Wellhausen et al., 1952). Although the subhumid highlands are known as the geographic center of Mexico's traditional maize farming systems, maize is as common in the semi-arid and arid northern states as in Mexico's southern tropical states. In the north, commercial maize is grown extensively under irrigation on large plots of over 100 ha. And in the central and southern states, maize often is part of complex agro-ecosystems in which it is primarily used for household consumption.

Any analysis of the attributes of the numerous local maize varieties illustrates the malleability of the crop as well as the extensive adaptive knowledge of the farmers who select their maize varieties according to their food preferences, economic needs, and variability of environmental conditions (Bellon, 1991, 1995; Trujillo, 1990). Differences in the attributes of local maize varieties have long been used by farmers to adjust to climatic variability. Typically, the varieties that farmers report to be the most resistant to drought impacts or frost risk are those that have been the least developed commercially and, in years of good climate conditions, those which tend to have lower yields than certified seeds (Eakin, 1998, 2002).

Household food security is the primary objective of most maize producers in Mexico, although the 1.5 to 2.0 metric tons required to feed the average household are often quite difficult to obtain from the small areas under household production (de Janvry et al., 1997; Eakin, 2002). Yields tend to be highly variable despite farmers' management of maize varieties according to climatic conditions (Figure 12.1). The summer rainy season of Mexico's highlands (May to September) is usually just sufficient for the growth cycle of maize. Much of eastern Mexico is affected by a mid-summer drought, whose intensity and timing can exhibit considerable variability. Frost is also a limiting factor in the highlands, preventing

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Figure 12.1 Average rainfed maize yields, Tlaxcala and Puebla, Mexico. (Based on data from Centro de Estadística Agropecuaria (CEA). 2003. Sistema de Información Agropecuaria de Consulta (SIACON). Versión 1.1. Secretaria de Agricultura, Gandería, Desarrollo Rural, Pescaría y Alimentación, Mexico City. http://www.siap. sagarpa.gob.mx/)

farmers from planting some slow-maturing varieties and limiting the flexibility of planting dates (Eakin, 1998).

Maize has always been an important element of national food security, and thus featured in both agricultural and social welfare policy. However, the 1980s and 1990s marked a dramatic shift in state policy. After the economic crisis of 1982, Mexico abandoned the goal of maize self-sufficiency, a policy objective that had been particularly important in the 1970s (Appendini, 1994; Escalante and Redón, 1987). By the mid to late 1980s, Mexico's elaborate and expensive system of urban food subsidies and guaranteed producer prices was largely dismantled (Appendini, 1998). Instead, the country turned toward models of comparative advantage, foreign investment, and free trade to address domestic food concerns. Mexico's adoption of a neoliberal policy involved a gradual but decisive withdrawal of state-supported agricultural services and inputs, crop price guarantees, and input subsidies, and a gradual opening of domestic agricultural markets to imports and foreign investment. As a result, in comparison with the high yields and large subsidies enjoyed by U.S. producers, Mexican maize is essentially noncompetitive in today's national and international markets.

The designers of the agricultural portion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 expected that Mexico's farmers would make their livelihoods in alternative high-value export crops, such as specialty vegetables and tropical fruits, or move out of agriculture into gainful employment in alternative sectors (Dussel Peters, 2000). Under NAFTA, Mexico was permitted to protect its maize market for 15 years by imposing a tariff on all maize imported above an annually established import quota. However, in response to the failure of domestic production to keep up with demand, maize imports increased significantly in the 1990s. Although an important portion of these imports exceed the established annual tariff-free quotas, Mexico frequently opted not to enforce this protective policy and the tariffs were not collected (Dussel Peters, 2000; Fritscher Mundt, 1999). Thus, Mexican commercial maize farmers felt the impact of NAFTA almost immediately. Easy entry of imported maize to Mexican markets and open market pricing have reduced the ability of Mexican farmers to market their maize internally. This is true despite the fact that most maize produced in Mexico is white maize, and imports from the United States are typically lower-quality yellow maize. As mentioned above, 98% of annual maize imports are now from the United States (Dussel Peters, 2000).

Given that the price of yellow maize is quite sensitive to the global demand for livestock feed and to U.S. production and agricultural policy, prices are reportedly now more variable than they were in the past (Fritscher Mundt, 1999). Mexican maize prices in real terms have fallen by 13% since the implementation of NAFTA, and in 1997 the real price of maize was 54% of its 1990 value (Dussel Peters, 2000). Many farmers now agree that, "Maíz ya no es negocio" (Maize is no longer profitable) (Eakin, 2002).

Unfortunately for Mexican farmers, these inauspicious terms of trade and changes in sector policy coincided with an unusual frequency and intensity of ENSO events in the latter half of the 1990s. These events were partially the cause of significant crop losses (Figure 12.2). The mild El Niño of 1995 marked the start of a 3-year drought that lasted through the spring of 1998 (Magaña R., 1999). Forest fires, initiated by farmers who were clearing land for plowing, were so severe in the spring of 1998 that the skies of Arizona and Texas became clouded with ash and particulates. The landfall of hurricane Pauline in the fall of 1998 brought torrential rains and provoked landslides in Mexico's central highlands, causing the most damage in highly marginal agricultural regions in which subsistence maize production is critical for local food security. And unusual frost events in the middle of central Mexico's growing season reduced maize yields in parts of central Mexico in both 1998 and 1999 (Eakin, 2002). Even irrigated regions faced water shortages and crop losses. The impact of these events on domestic maize production have been used to explain Mexico's increasing maize imports in the 1990s (SAGARPA, 2000).

Given this combination of circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that Mexico's rural population (approximately

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Figure 12.2 Maize imports and area lost to hazards, 1990-2002. (From Fox Quesada, V. 2003. Tercer Informe de Gobierno. Presidencia, Gobierno de Mexico, Mexico City.)

Figure 12.2 Maize imports and area lost to hazards, 1990-2002. (From Fox Quesada, V. 2003. Tercer Informe de Gobierno. Presidencia, Gobierno de Mexico, Mexico City.)

25% of the total) has not adapted to the open markets of the 1990s as smoothly as originally hoped. The collapse of domestic maize market has occurred in a context of declining incomes, increased livelihood insecurity, and persistent poverty in rural areas (Hernández Laos and Velásquez Roa, 2003; Kelly, 1999). Average gross income per hectare of rainfed maize since 1995 has declined by more than half (Hernández Laos and Velásquez Roa, 2003). By some estimates, 65% of rural households in Mexico are now unable to meet their basic needs (Hernández Laos and Velásquez Roa, 2003).

Surprisingly, despite the level of hardship found in agriculture, Mexico's rural population does not appear to have shifted into other formal economic sectors for the simple reason that there are few alternatives available. Instead, subsistence maize production has increased. Indeed, some fear that income-stressed households have expanded production onto marginal lands in order to meet their consumption requirements (de Janvry et al., 1997; Nadal, 1999). Recent case studies have illustrated that annual investments in subsistence production may in fact be necessary for some rural households to afford to diversify into alternative nonfarm activities, or even into more commercial crops (Eakin, 2002). Instead of leaving agriculture, households are diversifying into more informal economic activities or supporting migration to the United States by some of their members as a central means of rural survival (de Janvry and Sadoulet, 2001; Hernández Laos and Velásquez Roa, 2003).

Climate change in Mexico is occurring in this socioeconomic context. Increased climatic variability, including more frequent and perhaps more prolonged drought events, increased risk of torrential rainfall and flooding, and increasing maximum temperatures, can all be considered plausible for Mexico under different climate change scenarios (Conde et al., 1997). A trend of rising temperatures during April and May, the driest months of the year, is raising alarms about the country's capacity to provide sufficient water to meet current demands (Magaña, 2005). Global circulation models project that the geographic area considered unsuitable for maize production will increase in the future, by 8% to 37% (Conde et al., 1997). Others speculate that rainfed maize yields may decline by 20% to 61% under different climate change scenarios, largely because of reduced grain-filling periods caused by higher temperatures (Liverman et al., 1992). Irrigated production may become particularly stressed by increased competition for water, and increases in water evaporation caused by higher temperatures (Liverman and O'Brien, 1991).

The models that produced the above results did not take into consideration increases in the frequency of ENSO events, or possible future increases in climatic variability. Recent research shows that despite general warming trends, anomalous frost events continue to affect maize yields in the highland regions, and that they may be linked to ENSO (Eakin, 2002; Morales and Magaña, 1999). The impact of climatic change on the behavior of the mid-summer drought, a climatic feature of the highland regions, is also difficult to model. However, it has been shown to be quite sensitive to ENSO (Magaña et al., 1999). Variations in the timing and intensity of the mid-summer drought have also been shown to have important impacts on agricultural yields (Pereyra Diaz et al., 1994).

Adaptations such as increased fertilizer applications, improvements in irrigation infrastructure and efficiency, and new, more drought-tolerant seed varieties, will theoretically help Mexican farmers adapt to some of the worst impacts of climate change (Conde et al., 1997). However, expansion in irrigation is not a viable option for most regions, although improved efficiency in irrigation may provide substantial benefits for areas already with irrigation infrastructure. Chemical fertilizers have become more costly without public input subsidies and are too expensive for most smallholders.

Although farmers in Mexico's northern states are also likely to be affected by rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall, they are relatively better connected to agricultural markets, production supports, irrigation, and technical assistance than their counterparts in Mexico's central highlands and southern tropical states. In order to adapt simultaneously to new market challenges and climatic risks, smallholders in central and southern Mexico will need access to inexpensive technologies that will simultaneously improve their productivity and reduce their input costs. They will also need access to seed stocks that combine the resilience of the diverse varieties that they have traditionally used to manage risk, with new commercial advantages. They will require information about markets as well as assurances that taking new commercial risks will not result in greater hunger, debt, or increased poverty.

Some interesting and innovative projects in Mexico are designed to enhance smallholders' more successful traditional risk management strategies while helping them enter and hold their own in commercial markets. Cortés et al. (2004) describes one such project, involving agricultural intensification, intercropping, carbon sequestration, and commercial fruit production. In February 2003, the Secretary of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries, and Food (SAGARPA) also announced its support for a collaborative applied research project to improve local maize varieties. The lessons from these projects may be particularly instructive as

Mexico strives to improve its capacity for agricultural adaptation, but only if these projects are used to inform national policy.

Given that public support for agricultural research has been largely withdrawn, and that the budget for public investment in agriculture has been reduced (de Janvry et al., 1995; Myhre, 1994), it may be more difficult to use successful local experiments to improve rural livelihood stability and agricultural policy at the national level. Justification for investments in maize farmers will be particularly challenging when trade policy assumes that Mexico has no future in maize production. Yet without alternative sources of livelihood for rural residents, local maize production will remain a critical element of rural food security. A return to the old protectionist and distortionary polices of earlier decades, or to demand that Mexico attempt to become maize self-sufficient again, is unreasonable. However, the smallholder in Mexico cannot be assumed away.

In order for Mexican smallholders to be able to face both climatic risk and the challenges of open markets, rural policy needs to be reoriented and public agricultural research revitalized. If such efforts were to result in improved access by rural smallholders households to education, to domestic markets, to appropriate low-cost technologies and to environmental information (the essential resources of the global age), the resilience of rural populations to climatic risk would also improve, regardless of whether they remain in agriculture or find alternative sources of livelihood.

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