History & Culture

Crops That Feed The World | Maize

Sin maíz no hay país – without maize, there is no country – is a popular slogan from a Mexican campaign that seeks to preserve the country’s native maize seeds, varieties and smallholder farmers’ rights. In Mexico and many other countries, where millions depend on maize for their sustenance and livelihoods, protecting the crop and the means of its production has become a way of life.

Globally, maize is produced more than any other cereal, and its discourse is politically charged. Unlike wheat and rice, the second and third most-produced cereals, a large share of the maize we grow does not end up on our plates. Instead, around 85% of maize harvested each year is used for feeding animals in the food supply chain as well as for producing bioethanol.1 Furthermore, it is a traditional dietary staple throughout Latin America and Africa, making it essential to food security.1 Let’s examine three examples from around the world to see how the quest for resilient and affordable maize has manifested itself.

Braving a tortilla crisis in Mexico

It is estimated that Mexicans consume around 34 kg of maize per capita every year, making them the most avid consumers of the cereal in the world.1 Several traditional food products in the country are made from maize, but none is more popular than the humble tortilla. In 2007, several people took to the streets of New Mexico to demand and intervention when the price of tortillas increased by an alarming 72%.2

Mexican tortillas are a good example of how unrestricted non-food use of food crops can threaten food security in neoliberal markets. In 2006, the expansion of ethanol production in the United States created expectations of higher maize demand.2 With the US being an important export destination for Mexican maize, farmers tried to negotiate better prices for their produce. The farmers were unable to convince local buyers to increase prices, so they obtained permission to export their high-quality white maize directly to the USA for bioethanol production.2 This destabilised the domestic maize market, which led tortilla producers to increase prices to keep up with anticipated price increases of raw materials.2 Consequently, sales plummeted after the price increase caused consumers to cut back on tortilla consumption. As a result, producers increased their prices even further in order to maintain their income levels. Over the months that followed, the situation snowballed into a national crisis.

In early 2007, the Mexican government, together with several tortilla producers and the maize flour industry, signed a pact to prevent tortilla prices from rising above 8.5 pesos per kilogram, with white maize prices also capped at 3.5 pesos per kilogram.2 The government also allowed an additional 1.6 million tons of maize to be imported into the country that year to stabilise prices and took strict measures against price speculations and market manipulation.2

As well as being a staple good, maize is also the cornerstone of many traditions in Mexico. Here  'Tamales', a traditional Mexican food, are being prepared celebrate the candlemas day. Tamales are made of corn dough and butter and are filled with chicken a

As well as being a staple good, maize is also the cornerstone of many traditions in Mexico. Here 'Tamales' are being prepared to celebrate candlemas day. Tamales are made of maize dough and butter and are filled with chicken and green tomato sauce, and wrapped in a dried maize leaf. ( Carlos Tischler via Getty)

Fighting bio-hegemony in Colombia

In many parts of the world, a small number of biotechnology corporations have been able to patent the seeds produced by their genetically engineered crops. Such seed patents make it impossible for farmers to plant, exchange, and sell seeds at their own discretion. When governments, banks, exporters, and other important stakeholders promote the use of such patents, it gives rise to a ‘bio-hegemony’ – a situation where biotechnology corporations control agriculture through the clever use of intellectual property rights laws.

As native landraces of maize have been cultivated in Colombia for several centuries, a group known as the Red de Semillas Libres (Network of Free Seeds) have been fighting to break the bio-hegemony created by US biotech giants.3 This has brought together a network of indigenous peasant communities, international environmental and human rights NGOs, researchers, and consumers to defend farmers’ ‘seed sovereignty’. Through active participation in public consultations, lawsuits, lobbying, and demonstrations, the network opposes the adoption of genetically modified maize and the system of seed patenting.3 The Red de Semillas Libres also maintains and promotes a system of community seed banking where maize farmers can share and take collective ownership of criollo (native) seeds.3

However, the network’s success has been stifled by the poverty experienced by many Colombian farmers. Faced with bankruptcy, farmers are often not in a position to reject genetically modified maize seeds provided via foreign aid.3

Changing the status quo in a post-apartheid South Africa

From 1948 until the early 1990s, South Africa practised institutionalised racial segregation, known as apartheid in Afrikaans. Three decades after its abolition, the deep inequalities created by this system of governance still continue to affect the country’s progress in many ways. One among them is the adoption of genetically modified maize among Black smallholder farmers.

Maize was introduced in South Africa in the 17th century.4 The discovery of diamonds in the region turned it into an important food crop for those employed in the diamond mines. Initially, both European settlers as well as native farmers benefited by growing maize – a crop well suited to the region’s geography and climate.4 However, native farmers were dispossessed of the means of commercial production due to settlers’ desire to reduce competition.4 This led to them limiting their cultivation to local landraces for subsistence purposes. As a result of this exclusion, native farmers missed out on new agricultural and plant breeding techniques that drastically improved maize yield and quality.

Using genetic engineering techniques, South Africa hopes to bring in a new Green Revolution through improved food security and exports. Unlike American governments, the state seeks to protect farmers’ rights over seeds.4 However, Black smallholder farmers, who are now important actors in the country’s agricultural economy, are reluctant to adopt genetically modified maize for several reasons, including the lack of familiarity with the technology and restrictions on the re-use of seeds.4 This government is therefore left with the colossal task of changing the apartheid era’s disparate status quo.

Towards an inclusive future

From the examples discussed above, it is evident that the success of maize as a cash crop brings with it many complex dilemmas related to land use, price volatility, and social justice. While the use of genetic modification techniques is likely to play an important role in helping maize adapt to a changing climate and growing demand, concerns regarding intellectual property rights, biodiversity, and food security must not be ignored. If maize is to achieve its full potential as a life-sustaining food crop, nutritious animal feed, and sustainable replacement for fossil fuel, indigenous peoples and smallholders must be given a seat at the table and corporations must be held accountable for their actions.

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