President Obama paid a visit to Mexico at the beginning of May, and met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
They talked about narco-terrorism and immigration reform. Nothing much much will come of this, because the government of the US is dysfunctional. Congress isn't going to pass any change to immigration laws, or do anything to curb the flow of assault weapons from the US into Mexico. And Mexico doesn't really want any more help from the US in the war on the narco-terrorists.
They also talked about trade, however. That's a different matter, because much of trade policy is controlled by Obama's Executive branch.
Unfortunately, there's no indication from the news reports that Obama and Peña Nieto talked about Mexico's corn imports. That's right, Mexico's corn imports. Corn is an essential part of the diet of Mexicans, and Mexico imported 11 million tons of it in 2011, 8.5 million in 2012. The 2012 imports cost Mexicans $2.8 billion, and this is a cost that has quadrupled over the past ten years, due primarily to the use of corn for producing ethanol in the US. These imports are about 40% of Mexico's corn consumption.
The effect of this on Mexico's economy has been devastating. (It's been even more devastating for Guatemala, a much poorer country that is also dependent on corn imports.) This isn't in the best interest of either the US or Mexico. When rural Mexicans can't feed themselves, they move to cities, and often on to the US. Draining Mexico's rural areas of people makes these areas more vulnerable to the narco-terrorists.
Cultivation of corn began in Mexico, and corn has a cultural value as well as a food value. There are 60 varieties of corn grown in Mexico, and the genetically-altered versions from Monsanto are a solution looking for a problem. So, why can't Mexico grow enough corn to feed its population, and what can the US do to help?
One problem is infrastructure. Rural farmers have problems getting their products to markets. However, Mexico has been doing a better job than the US has of improving infrastructure over the past few years, so the US can be of no help on this one.
The Mexican government initiated a program called MasAgro in 2011. It is an agricultural extension service, and intends to assist small farmers in Mexico to test and use better maize and wheat varieties, and to promote conservation agriculture cropping practices and other technologies that raise their yields and incomes while reducing costs, risks, and environmental impacts.
The Mexican government also initiated another extension service, the Strategic Project for High-Yield Maize (PROEMAR), in 2008. It features basic soil analysis and precision fertilizer application. It has demonstrated dramatic results when implemented in conjunction with a strong, accountable farmer organization.
Mexico can also increase crop yields by improving and increasing irrigation. Mexico was actually promised public investment in irrigation in the run-up to the NAFTA agreement. This promise wasn't kept. There is less irrigated corn-growing land now than there was prior to NAFTA.
So, the Obama administration could start by revisiting the irrigation issue, and provide resources that the US Department of Agriculture already has. As for MasAgro and PROEMAR, the Department of Agriculture and land-grant universities in every state know a few things about agricultural extension. In addition, the Peace Corps has a long history of recruiting agricultural extension volunteers.
So, the US has the resources to do some good here, and improve its image in Latin America. All that's needed is a commitment; put those land-grant university graduates to work.
Achieving Mexico’s Maize Potential from the Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University
Mexico Celebrates “Carnival of Corn” and Rejects Monsanto, by Alfredo Acedo, CIP Americas
Obama Downplays Drug War, Recasts Mexico, Central America as Economic Allies, by Laura Carlsen, CIP Americas
This article also published here