The Ploy to Promote Genetically Engineered Seeds and Pesticides to Poor Mexican Farmers Is Impoverishing Their Communities
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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 Alba Quezedo 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.
Quezedo 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), Quezedo responded that there are already varieties of maiz criollo that can withstand an entire month without water.