Tortilla Spat

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
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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Tortilla Spat

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