Tortilla Spat

Mexico's free trade doublespeak wreaks havoc on people's diets and lives

| September 21, 2006

If all the talk of stolen Mexican elections and corrupt free-trade agreements leaves you as lost as a report on nuclear astrophysics does, let Tom Philpott of Grist fill you in. To illustrate the impacts neo-liberal practices have had on Mexico's culture and economy since the late 1980s, Philpott traces the story of the humble, but symbolic, corn tortilla.

Though corn tortillas have been made from masa, a home-ground corn paste, for thousands of years, one man, Roberto Gonz?lez Barrera, thought the late 1980s were high time for change. Gonz?lez, head of the company Maseca, hatched a business plan to sell highly processed corn flour as the preferred ingredient for tortillas, writes Philpott. Consumers, however, continued to spend their pesos on the old-fashioned, tasty, and wholesome masa tortilla. Philpott cites a 1996 New York Times report by Anthony DePalma chronicling how Gonz?lez took his business woes to his friend, President Carlos Salinas (newly elected in a highly contested vote), and the two struck a deal: Traditional tortilla makers' corn supply would be rationed, and Maseca would get the bulk of Mexico's subsidized stock. In effect, tortilla makers were given an ultimatum -- start producing flour tortillas or go bankrupt as a result of the severely decreased corn supply. In fact, as DePalma reported, hundreds of tortillerias did go out of business.

'Free' trade continued to wreak havoc on the traditional tortilla industry. While Maseca raked in government subsidies -- $300 million in 1994, according to DePalma -- NAFTA allowed heavily subsidized US corn to cross the border in heaps, destroying local markets. According to an Oxfam report, corn prices in Mexico fell 70 percent between 1994 and 2001. The lower prices, however, didn't translate to cheaper food for consumers because, again citing free-market principles, the government removed a price cap on tortillas, the cost of which tripled.

Gonz?lez is now the chief executive of what Philpott calls a 'global tortilla empire.' Meanwhile, rural corn farmers are out of jobs, and the taste of the old tortilla is sorely missed in many regions. What's more, the high cost of tortillas has led to an increased consumption of white bread that has left many Mexicans in poorer health. Philpott laments that the recent appointment of president Felipe Calder?n hasn't given Mexicans much to hope for, beyond continued favoritism of corporate profits and more 'free' trade. -- Suzanne Lindgren

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