T-MEC, Agriculture and Neoliberalism

By: Luis Hernández Navarro 

The free trade hurricane devastated the Mexican countryside, ruined small and medium-sized farmers and forced millions of campesinos to migrate to the United States or agricultural fields in the country’s northwest. The free movement of agricultural merchandise across borders, with few regulations, placed unequal parties competing in equal conditions.

Not only that. It radically upset the diet of the popular classes causing an epidemic of obesity, malnutrition and diabetes, the consequences of which surface today with the Covid-19 crisis. According to a study published by The New York Times, “in 2015, Mexicans bought an average of 1,928 calories of packaged food and drinks per day –380 calories more than in the United States–, more than people in any other country.”

The commercial opening of agriculture began before the effective date of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in January 1994. The free import of agricultural products went hand in hand with the dismantling of guaranteed prices and their alignment with international prices. The treaty went further, deepening this liberalization. It required going from a mere commercial relationship to a subordinate mixed economic-productive integration. It was the padlock that closed the door of neoliberal reforms in agriculture.

NAFTA provided a devastating blow to the cultivation of grains and oil seeds. Mexico was left to the fickleness of the global market. We (Mexico) import more than 45 percent of the foods we consume. The United States provides almost half of them. In 2018, 23 million tons of basic grains were imported, equivalent to nearly 4 billion 910 million dollars. Some 82.2 percent of yellow corn, 86 percent of rice, 70 percent of wheat, 13 percent of beans and 39.3 percent of pork were purchased from abroad. Many of these products are leftovers. We import 6 million tons of American food waste, byproducts or residues, for human consumption.

NAFTA caused the loss of some 2 million agricultural jobs. Putting life and health at risk, those expelled from the land marched, with or without papers, to the nation of great promise. Mexico became the largest migratory corridor in the world.

Heroically, against all odds, the milpa campesinos have maintained the production of white corn. Supported by remittances that they receive from their relatives in the United States, they have made their economic production units entrenchments where they keep their seeds, productive systems and the culture associated with them alive.

As if that were not enough, peasants who are in possession of better lands or of water, suffer the harassment of real estate agents, tourism companies and large farmers to acquire their land. And those who live in the steepest regions, suffer pressure from the mining companies that long to dispossess them of their territories and natural resources. To make matters worse, others live under the constant intimidation of drug traffickers for the purpose of using their lands for the production of narcotics.

After razing the old rural fabric, free trade constructed a new one, closely linked to production chains and US transnationals. In the new normal of free trade, the berry and avocado-producing enclaves proliferated. With the California region experiencing a serious water problem, Uncle Sam’s packing companies moved to Mexico without having to pay environmental costs to grow the vegetables that their market demands.

Thousands of young people in western Mexico became day laborers that way, and became addicted to a kind of rock that allows them to work without rest from sunrise to sunset, while it fries their neurons.

The country became a proud exporter of tequila and beer (on the hands of transnational consortiums) and also of shrimp. Meanwhile, the once vigorous production of coffee deflated like a balloon, hit by the rust (bacteria) and a lack of governmental support.

If we had to place a simile of the relationship that was established with NAFTA, we would say that it’s a cheesecake in which the United States puts wheat flour, eggs, yeast, cheese, cream and butter, and Mexico contributes exotic raspberries, vanilla and sugar (as long as it’s made of cane).

Far from reversing the rapacious nature of this agro-industrial vassalage, the new trade agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada (it’s called T-MEC in Mexico and USMCA by Trump) preserves, amplifies and deepens it. It gives it another twist, obliging the Mexican state to adhere to the 1991 Act of the Convention of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Vegetables (UPOV 91), which grants intellectual property rights to plant breeders –principally transnational seed corporations– and limits the use and exchange of seeds by farmers, who will not be able to replant the product of their harvest without the permission of the company that has the breeder’s right. It opens the door even further to transgenic seeds and puts native seeds and improved public seeds at grave risk.

In the agricultural terrain, T-MEC is more of the same, but worse. It’s a central instrument for oligopolies to dispossess those who have developed and taken care of them for thousands of years of the use and control of campesino seeds. It is a key piece of the neoliberal order in the region.

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. https://www.jornada.com.mx/2020/07/14/opinion/018a2pol
This English interpretation was re-posted with permission from the Chiapas Support Committee.