Mexicans Defend Their Humble Tortilla

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

Diana Denham

TENS OF THOUSANDS of Mexicans filled the central plaza of the capital on January 31, 2007 in the March for Food Sovereignty and In Defense of a Minimum Wage and Employment. This megamarcha in Mexico City was a mass expression of similar mobilizations throughout the country since the beginning of the year, when the price of tortillas rose drastically. Marchers chanted, “We want tortillas, not PAN”— pan means bread in Spanish and is also the acronymn for Felipe Calderón’s Nacional Action Party, currently in power at the national level.

Over the last year a kilogram of tortillas cost about six pesos, but in January shot up to 15 pesos in most parts of the country.

Tortillas constitute the base of the Mexican diet — the average Mexican consumes half a kilo (just over one pound) of tortillas per day and up to a kilo per day in rural areas — while the minimum wage remains 45 pesos per day. The public outcry led President Felipe Calderón to sign a pact on January 18th with major companies like MASECA as well as the biggest chains of tortillerías, to “stabilize” the price at a 40% increase: 8.50 pesos per kilo.

At the megamarcha in the Zócalo, protestors demanded a new pact that would include increased support to producers, subsidies on tortillas, and the blocking of imported tariff-free corn and beans. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) these imports are to begin officially on January 1, 2008. According to defeated populist presidencial candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador, who spoke at the march, this will be the “definitive blow for four million peasant families.”

Ethanol, Hoarding and Speculation

Everyone is pointing fingers, but not all to the same culprit. Corn as a source of ethanol for bio-diesel fuel has pushed up the price. Last year expansion of ethanol-processing refineries in the U.S. corn belt led market analysts to predict a 25% price increase with more in the future (“Maiz: Cosechar Tempestades,” Oaxaca Libre, 1/18).

Some analysts suggest speculation.more than an actual increase in demand, is fueling the prices for corn-ethanol. If it is true that corn prices are on the rise in the United States, the prices that industry can pay for fuel corn will likely be much higher than what average Mexican consumers can pay.

Others cite corruption and hoarding in the giant corn flour and tortilla monopolies as the principal culprit. According to official data, this year Mexican farmers produced a substantial harvest of the white corn typically used for making tortillas (“Monopolies and Tortillas,” The Economist, 1/19). The fall-winter harvest, especially with the sizeable production of Sinaloa, proved to be sufficient to satisfy the national demand including the seasonal breach between September 2006 and May 2007.

The tortilla industry, however, is dominated by a few private companies, and the government has done little to deter monopolistic practices. Although the price of on the national market was predicted to rise, authorities did little to protect domestic supply.

ASERCA, the government organization for agricultural commercialization, permitted the export of 500,000 tons of grain. Cargill, the biggest grain distributor in the world, was permitted to buy 600.000 tons of corn at 1,650 pesos per ton. Later Cargill began to sell the corn in the valley of Mexico at 3,500 pesos per ton (“Pactortilla,” Reforma, 1/21/07).

The major grain distributors reaped profits resulting from the price hike. But while Article 253 of the federal penal code prohibits hoarding and excessive profits based on price-fixing, the Federal Competition Commission has done little to enforce the law (“Maiz: Cosechar Tempestades,” Oaxaca Libre, 1/18).

Calderón’s pact includes a promise to investigate and punish responsible hoarders, but considering the intimate relationship between big business and the PAN, it is unlikely that the investigation will uncover anything that turns out to be politically inconvenient.

The NAFTA Factor

While NAFTA has not made its way into the forefront of the debate, it is certainly at the heart of the problem. Part of the motivation for NAFTA was to shift the economy away from corn production and towards more lucrative goods aimed at the export market. In the years leading up to NAFTA, protected communal lands were parceled off and support for small farmers and corn production was withdrawn, thereby escalating the expulsion of farmers from their lands.

Mexico has increased its dependency on U.S. corn dramatically since NAFTA went into effect, from approximately one and a half million tons in 1994 to six million in 2004 and steady increases over the last few years (Esteva: “We are People of Corn”).

Since NAFTA went into effect, many small farmers, given that they cannot compete with the heavily subsidized corn coming in from the United States, have stopped producing corn. Mexico has therefore increased its dependency on U.S. corn while losing its domestic production capacity and consequently its ability to provide the people with their basic staple grain.

Because of peasant pressure, NAFTA included a section for a 15-year protection of the domestic corn market, with import quotas increasing gradually until 2008, at which point any tariffs on agricultural products will be prohibited.

The current proposed solution— to import greater quantities of corn free of import tariffs — now gives the impression that Mexico requires imports to provide its people with affordable tortillas, weakening resistance to the tariff-free dumping of American corn.

GM Corn in Our Backyard

Mexico is the birthplace of corn. The oldest archeological remains of corn date back 9,000 years and come from Oaxaca (Esteva: “We are People of Corn”). During the following milennia, corn spread over the Americas and emerged as the primary form of sustenance.

Many of the genesis stories of the indigenous people refer to corn as the Mother, the principal giver of life: Humans were made from corn, the corn silk was the hair of the goddess. In the Mayan Popul Vuh, the flesh of humans is made of corn. All kinds of praise and rituals are associated with corn.

Despite the significance of corn in Mexican culture, the tortilla crisis has given way to further discussion about another major issue affecting food sovereignty: the debate over genetically modified seeds and food (GM). Cultivation of genetically modified corn in Mexico was prohibited by law in 1998, following a popular struggle in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the government does import GM corn from the United States.

Though outraged, no one was overly surprised when GM corn was discovered in the Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte in 2000. A woman had bought some cheap imported corn for consumption, but decided to experiment with it in her field. Suddenly GM corn had found its way to the birthplace of corn (Esteva: “We are People of Corn”).

Now the debate has resurfaced: Given the many promises of higher yields, should Mexico loosen its policy to allow the cultivation of GM corn? Popular opinion still seems to be that the risks of introducing GM corn far outweigh any potential gains. Problems associated with GM corn constitute an issue of food sovereignty on several levels and include political, economic, environmental, and health concerns.

Genetic modification focuses on the homogenization and standardization of corn, which is exactly the reverse of the genetic diversity of corn that has flourished in Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico for thousands of years. Since Oaxaca is the world center of the creation of corn, that’s where the greatest diversity of corn is found. The introduction of GM corn risks destroying that diversity through cross-pollenization — a single GM plant puts the whole area in danger.

The dependence on multinational companies for seeds would also constitute a serious threat to the autonomy of farmers and creates a dangerous dependence on multinacional companies like Monsanto. Brewster Kneen explains, “To say that seeds are sold by the companies is misleading. It is more like they are rented to the farmer for a season. The farmer is not allowed to keep any of the crop for replanting or sharing with neighbors, because the patent on the seed belongs to a major transnational corporation” (Kneen, Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology, 107).

Effects of GM products on health have yet to be thoroughly researched. However, according to Greenpeace, Maseca and Minsa, the two biggest producers of corn flour, use GM corn without either guaranteeing its safety or informing the consumer (Greenpeace Boletín 0703).

Bt corn is the main GM corn on the market. It kills pests by releasing Bt toxins that bind to a receptor molecule in the insects’ digestive system, causing the insect’s gut wall to disintegrate. Over time, however, insects could become resistant by evolving a differently-shaped receptor that no longer binds the toxin (Kneen, 106). There is, therefore, a serious risk of the creation of “super pests” as the insect bellies adapt to the Bt over several seasons, and there is virtually nothing the companies are doing to prevent insect resistance (Ibid., 108)

Carlos González Esquivel, of the Center for Research on Agronomy at the UNAM, refutes the idea that transgenic corn would be a solution. The Bt corn currently planted in the United States contains an enzyme that protects it against certain insects, but these are not present in most of Mexico. Additionally these types of corn have not been shown to produce superior harvests (“Refuta que el maíz transgénico sea solución para México,” La Jornada, 19 enero 2007)

In addition to the extreme risks of the introduction of GM corn cultivation in Mexico, it’s important to note that farmers in Mexico don’t have much to gain from GM corn in the first place. If there is a reduction in the amount of corn produced in Mexico, it’s not crop failure that is at the root of the problem, but rather social, economic and political factors that pose serious challenges to corn’s continued production.

The peasants of Mexico have been producing thousands of varieties of corn for thousands of years, clearly possessing profound knowledge about its cycles and needs.

Food Sovereignty

The term “food sovereignty” was coined by Via Campesina to refer to “the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture,” in contrast to dominant discourse that puts food supply and quality constantly at the whim of market forces (Rosset, “Food Sovereignty”).

Proponents of free trade policies argue that food security is not dependent on food self-sufficiency — a nation’s ability to provide for its food needs — but rather, food “self-reliance,” a nation’s capacity to buy its food from other countries (Shiva 14). The capacity to buy food theoretically comes from production based on “comparative advantage,” that is, structuring production around whatever goods can be produced most efficiently and sold to other nations to make the most profit.

Protestors against the rising tortilla prices demand food self-sufficiency and food sovereignty. They want guarantees that the power to ensure corn for tortillas, tamales, totopos, tlayudas, pozole and hundreds of other regional dishes is in their hands.

Corn doesn’t reproduce itself without being planted by human hands. What happens to our biodiversity when farmers leave their lands to migrate? What if we have to accept the single U.S. yellow variety meant for pig feed? Once we have lost our capability to produce corn, what happens when U.S. corn is increasingly diverted toward industry and the price shoots out of our reach?

What if the United States stops subsidizing its corn? What if there is a drought or blight or war or any of the myriad disasters that have had drastic effects on food supply throughout human history, and suddenly there isn’t enough corn for the United States to export to its lowly southern neighbors?

Economic policies based in the theory of comparative advantage frequently fail to bring in the promised profits, while the profits reaped fail to trickle down to the poorer sectors of society. Because staple grains represent the most necessary basis of life, the role of the government to guarantee sustained supply should necessarily be focused on ensuring production on local, regional, and national levels. Tariffs on imports of corn to protect non-subsidized Mexican farmers are only the most basic step. Integrated policies that make farming a viable livelihood are essential.

“Aunque Sea Tortilla con Sal”

In Tanetze de Zaragoza, in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, just like in most rural villages all over Mexico, women wake up at 5am to begin preparing the stacks of tortillas that their families will consume during the course of a day. In some villages, women grind the corn by hand, while in others they carry a bucket filled with the grain that their family has harvested to the local mill.

They carry the dough back to their homes, spread it out on the stone metate and continue mixing, patting, pressing out by hand or in a tortilla press, carefully laying the tortilla over the comal on the wood burning stove. They turn the tortilla several times before laying it in the cloth-lined gourd. The tortillas are deep yellow or white or purple or red or dark blue, reflecting the great diversity of corn varieties grown in the region.

The blue tortilla inflates and one of the women flips it over as she tells a story about her husband, “When we got married, we had nothing. But we were in love, so we decided to go ahead with it. We told each other “aunque sea tortilla con sal — even if all we have is tortilla with salt.” That is, as long as we have the bear minimum of the basis for survival, we’ll be all right.

Demand for tortillas in Mexico is virtually inelastic. It is what there must be in life even if there is nothing else — the basic life force, the essential sustenance. Ultimately it remains up to the government to adopt integrated strategies to protect local agricultura — placing the wealth of experience of small farmers at the center of those policies — and to be accountable for providing for the most basic and essential needs of the people.


Esteva, Gustavo. “We Are People of Corn: Life, Metaphor, Autonomy”. In Motion Magazine. April 8, 2006.

“Exigimos miles en el zócalo nuevo pacto social” por Patricia Muñoz, Matilde Pérez y Fabiola Martínez. La Jornada. 19 enero 2007.

Granados Chapa, Miguél Angel. “Pactortilla, pacotilla.” Reforma. 21 enero 2007.

Kneen, Brewster. Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, B.C., 1999.

“Mientras en México empresas y gobierno intentan imponerlos, crece el rechazo mundial a los transgénicos.” Greenpeace Boletín 0703. 18 de enero de 2007.

“Monopolies and Tortillas.” The Economist. From The Economist Intelligience Unit ViewsWire. January 19, 2007.

Nada, Alejandro. “Maiz: cosechar tempestades” Oaxaca Libre. 18 enero 2007.

“Pactan un alza de 40% a la tortilla” por Claudia Herrera Beltrán. La Jornada. 19 enero 2007.

“Refuta que el maíz transgénico sea solución para México,” por Carlos González Esquivel. La Jornada, 19 enero 2007.

Ribeiro, Silvia. Maiz y Mentiras de Fondo. Oaxaca Libre. 24 enero 2007.

Rosset, Peter. “Food Sovereignty: Global Rallying Cry of Farmer Movements.” Backgrounder: Volume 9, Number 4. Fall 2003.

Shiva, Vandana. Stolen Harvest: the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. South End Press: Cambridge, 2000.

ATC 128, May-June 2007