Sunday, April 15, 2007


For a long time I've been concerned the issue of corn in our lives. As Michael Pollan notes in "An Omnivore's Dilemma," we in the United States have become the true "corn people," outdistancing by a mile the Mexicans and Central Americans whose diet is based around native corn.

Why? Because corn is so pervasive in our diets as well as much of what we use in our homes, that nearly everything we come into contact with has a connection to corn. Whether it is the high-fructose corn syrup in beverages, corn thickeners in processed food and sauces, or corn fed to cattle and chickens, you'll find it there as well as in glues, fixatives, household products, medicines and on and on. Look at the ingredients in most packaged food, and you're likely to see something that contains corn -- even if it's just the lecithin that keeps your candy fresh.

Corn has, in fact, become so inclusive in our diets that a doctor recently commented on NPR that he sees serious malnutrition in young children in Oakland who are, at the same time, obese. What is causing the malnutrition? The children are essentially living on a mono-ingredient diet, corn being the principal nutrient they receive in their fast food diets.

This harkens back to the days when corn first came to Europe and Asia. As the Europeans didn't know how to access the protein value in corn, which requires a process the ancient Olmec culture unlocked, Italian peasants, who lived largely on polenta, developed pellagra. It appears that we are moving backward rather than forward nutritionally speaking. Scary, isn't it?

But wait, there's more. NAFTA and now CAFTA, the free trade agreements forged between the United States and Mexico, have created additional draconian situations. In the US we pay subsidies to large corn and soy farmers to produce an overabundance of crops; conversely, sometimes our government pays them not to grow crops. The over-stock of corn has been exported to Mexico where it costs less than the native corn produced by small family farms. Farmers unable to compete with the cheap North American corn had two choices: Leave the family farms to come north to work as unskilled labor or, purchase American corn, use part of it and plant part of it for next year's crop.

Corn has the ability to cross-pollinate quickly and easily. The corn we sent to Mexico has been genetically modified, whereas the beautiful Mexican corn comes from the early corn native to the Americas that is full of nutrition and well adapted to growing in Mexico's climate. The genetically modified corn has now crossed with the native corn supply and threatens to wipe it out. What's wrong with this?

Well, the Irish white potato, also originally native to the Americas, was the only potato varietal they used. As it was able to adapt to the moist climate of Ireland it was used by everyone. I've included a couple of paragraphs on the Potato Famine as it is relevant to this disucssion.

"By the 1800s, Irish peasants were eating a daily average of 10 potatoes per person. Potatoes supplied about 80 percent of the calories in their diet. The peasants used potato fodder to feed their animals, animals which provided milk, meat and eggs to supplement the peasants' diet. This dependence on one food crop was dangerous, but no other crop had ever proved to be as reliable.

"In the 1840s, disaster struck. Three successive years of late blight, the microscopic fungus Phytophthora infestans, and heavy rains rotted the potato crops in the ground. Without potatoes, both the peasants and animals went hungry. And when the animals died for lack of food, milk, meat and eggs were no longer available. More than one million of Ireland's 8 million inhabitants died of starvation; almost 2 million emigrated. The population of Ireland was reduced by almost one-fourth and has never regained its former numbers to this day."

Interesting, isn't it, how we don't seem to learn from history.

So, with the corn export debacle as one of the many problems plaguing Mexico, farmers have increasingly left their farms for work in the cities or in "El norte." Not only does this cause problems for the US as more and more people arrive desperate for work, it means that farmers are leaving the land and not producing crops for people in the cities.

However, when corn-as-fuel became the craze a shift occurred: there wasn't enough corn to meet global needs. Farmers such as Rogelio Zacaula with a farm near Orizaba, the highest peak in Mexico, feels as if he has won the jackpot. Farmers are returning to their land to grow corn to feed the massive demand for the burgeoning US biofuel market.

Corn prices, which had been around $2.00 a bushel for decades, suddenly soared to over $4.00 a bushel. Further, the shortage meant that it would continue to reach new highs over the next five years, according to Keith Collins, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Collins predicts that American farmers will need to plant 90 million acres of corn by 2010 -- nearly 10 million more than now -- to meet demand of the rapidly growing US ethanol industry. That means that developing countries in Latin America have a great opportunity to make money growing corn.

Wow! Sounds like a solution, doesn't it? In Mexico's state of Sinaloa, industrial-scale growers recently doubled their corn acreage, phasing out soy and other crops. They now have corn planted on 1.1 million acres, and are also buying more land. Growers hope the ethanol boom will ease what they feared would be a devastating blow with the full opening of borders to US exports of corn and beans in 2008 under NAFTA. Since 1993, when NAFTA was introduced, Mexico's rural sector has lost an estimated 11.6 million jobs, prompting many farmers to seek work in the US.

Unfortunately, there is usually a dark underside to everything that sounds too good to be true and this is true with corn. First, about 60 percent of Mexico's corn growers are subsistence farmers and produce only enough for their own consumption. These farmers typically scratch out a living on steep mountainsides or land that has been depleted by overuse as there isn't the space for crop rotations.

The tortilla is the primary source of nutrition for the poor farmers and families who live in rural Mexico, as well as for the majority of the poor who have moved to the cities in search of work. It's not uncommon for families to subsist on tortillas, salt, lime juice and a watered down slurry of beans. Chickens are needed for eggs and, because chickens are fed corn, a valuable resource, they are only eaten when they are too old to lay eggs. Children are protein-deficient, which not only affects their health but also their ability to learn effectively.

Now that the prices of corn have skyrocketed and most corn is being sidelined for ethanol, prices for tortillas have skyrocketed. In Mexico, tortilla prices rose 14% over the last year, an unjustifiable price according to Guillermo Ortiz, Mexico's Bank Gov., especially as inflation is at 4%. Ortiz blamed companies who monopolize the market and block competition. "This is direct evidence of the way globalization is affecting all walks of life in Mexico and all over the world," said David Barkin, an economics professor at the Xochimilco campus of the Autonmous Metropolitan University in Mexico City.

The political and academic pundits offer lofty explanations of what has occurred; the poor speak more eloquently: "When there isn't enough money to buy meat, you do without," said Bonifacia Ysidro as she wrapped a towel around a stack of tortillas she barely could afford. "Tortillas you can't do without."

Globalization drives so much of what occurs in the world. Brazil has planted millions of acres of sugar cane for ethanol. Malaysia has cleared thousands of acres of land to plant soy. The developing countries, rich in natural resources and cheap labor are the logical places to plant crops to fuel our addiction to modern technology, most especially the automobile, especially now as fossil fuels are being rapidly depleted. But is it wise to clear acreage of carbon-dioxide absorbing hardwoods to create fuel from annual crops?

There is an interesting alternative in a little-known tree native to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean -- jatropha. Jatropha curcus is an unassuming tree that literally grows like a weed in the Americas as well as in the many tropical countries where it has been taken over the years. It reaches maturity in 18 - 24 months, is drought resistant, has few, if any, insect enemies, produces an abundance of fleshy fruit that contains seeds and continues to produce for up to 50 years.

The fleshy fruit can easily be used for ethanol, but it's best known for the four seeds inside the fruit. As the fruit dries, the seeds become increasingly oil-rich. The seeds, which contain a minimum of 37% oil, produce the cleanest burning biodiesel available. All that is needed to produce this seed oil is a warm, frost-free environment, natural fertilizer and/or compost, occasional pruning and someone to harvest the fruits and take them to a crushing facility. While they can be grown in the desert, the moister, more humid climate is far better for oil volume.

Currently there are jatropha plantations in Ghana, India and some Central American and African countries. Unfortunately, though farmers have planted jatropha on the advice of professors and agronomists looking for solutions for the poor, there is a dearth of crushing facilities or processing plants at this time. However, a major project is underway to establish additiona jatropha plantations in Mexico and Central America as well as to set up crushing facilities. While it doesn't make sense to have the farmers plant the jatropha on their small plantations as transportation to a central crushing facility is an issue, farmers can work as day laborers on the plantations while still maintaining their own farms where many grow the "luxury" crops such as coffee, cacao and vanilla.

Is jatropha the ultimate solution to the fuel crisis? That remains to be seen. But it appears to be a far better solution than corn, soy or sugar. And, it may provide a a partial solution to the mass migration north. As Raul Esparza, economist in Veracruz Mexico says, "We must find work for the rural families. Now we have ghost towns throughout Mexico where only the very young and the elderly remain as the parents have moved north in search of a way to support their families."

I will keep you posted on jatropoha. If it works as hoped, it will soon be a household word worldwide.

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