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Mexican government prodding its farmers to grow more food

MEXICO CITY (AP) – The corn has begun to sprout on the hillsides south of Mexico’s capital, though it’s unclear whether these shoots will have enough water to grow or whether the farmer will be able to afford the increasingly expensive fertiliser.

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 toward self-sufficiency in key products and to control prices for basic foodstuffs.

The president’s idea, which involves giving rural families cash payments to grow crops and technical advice, isn’t new, but the ravages of the pandemic, climate change and market turmoil created by the war in Ukraine have given it new urgency. The government wants to head off food insecurity in a country where 44 per cent of the population lives in poverty and where 27.5 million tonnes of corn are produced, but over 40 million tonnes are consumed, according to government data.

Some farmers hope for additional state financial help and subsidised fertiliser. Others are suspicious of government plans. But hope that this year’s harvest produces enough to feed their families and with luck a bit more to sell in their communities.

While G-7 countries look for global solutions and the United States (US) and development banks prepare a multibillion-dollar plan to ease food insecurity, the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) welcomed Mexico’s efforts toward self-sufficiency in basic foods, but does not expect quick results.

Brothers Arturo, Benjamin and Victor Corella work their land in Milpa Alta south of Mexico City. PHOTO: AP

“We do not see food prices going down, at least this year,” the organization’s representative in Mexico Lina Pohl said.

The government said it hopes that those participating in the programme will increase their production of corn and beans by about two thirds.

Brothers Arturo, Benjamín and Víctor Corella, three teachers who in their retirement are farming family plots in Milpa Alta in southermost Mexico City, know everyone is having a rough time, but they are optimistic because after only one year in ‘Sowing Life’ or ‘Sembrando Vida’ – one of López Obrador’s signature programmes – they harvested one and a half tonnes 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 buy tortillas, but rather try to do it ourselves,” said Benjamín. Now, he said, a government technician coaches them through their planting strategies, improving their yield.

‘Sowing Life’ was publicised as an ambitious reforestation programme aimed to plant a million hectares of trees producing fruit and lumber. It was also hoped that giving rural families a sustainable source of revenue and a monthly cash payment would keep more of them on their land rather than migrating north.

But the programme also included a lesser-known option that López Obrador now hopes to amplify. Some enrollees could choose to receive monthly payments to grow what in Mexico is known as the ‘milpa’, corn, beans and squash grown together as has been done for centuries.

The programme counts with an investment of nearly USD4 billion and some 450,000 participating growers, each of whom receives a monthly USD225 payment from the government. The real number of people involved is far larger though, because to qualify each grower needs to farm 2.5 hectares – more land than many farmers have – and often entire families or even communities pool their land like the Corellas.

Despite the government’s use of the programme to counter its less-than-stellar environmental record and doubts about its scientific underpinnings, few have questioned its social impact.

Housed in Mexico’s social welfare – not agriculture – ministry it generates work and food by supporting farmers with technical advice and monitoring.

The FAO sees it as a “fundamental programme” helping small farmers to improve their quality of life and produce in healthier ways.

Secretary of the welfare ministry Ariadna Montiel said the goal is to expand the programme and offer new support to those already enrolled so they can farm more land, add new crops or start to produce and use organic fertilisers.

That’s precisely what the Corella brothers have in mind.

Montiel said the effort’s results will be seen in four or five months when corn is harvested, but only the growers’ communities are likely to see the prices of those basic foods drop. “If we think about these families, which are the poorest, having this (food self-sufficiency) guaranteed, we remove a concern,” she said.

If they have more than they can eat themselves, they can sell it locally or to the government for a fair price to supply its food programmes for the most marginalised.

Strong economies including the US, Japan and European nations have opted for self-sufficiency as well subsidising certain products, even though buying from its producers is more expensive than importing.

In the late 1990s, with the North American Free Trade Agreement, many Mexicans began buying cheaper US corn and stopped farming their land.

While the FAO defends self-sufficiency efforts in food production, it emphasises that international trade is crucial for economies.