Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mexican Corn Protests

Earlier this month, there were demonstrations in the streets of Mexico City to protest the rising cost of corn. The price of maize on world markets has escalated and the price of corn tortillas has almost doubled in Mexico. Every day, 104 million Mexicans consume over 300 million tortillas. It is truly a food staple and many people in the poorer parts of the country have little else to eat.

I remember my mother describing a weekend visit she made to a tiny community in the mountains. She told me the people ate beans and tortillas for breakfast, and tortillas and beans for comida. The tortilla, also a plate and food utensil, is served at virtually every meal. Each community has a local tortillaria like the one above where you go to buy fresh tortillas for your meal. The larger cities now have large supermarkets and fresh, hot tortillas are sold by the kilogram there as well.

Mexico does grow enough corn for its population, but large quantities of the grain are used for chicken and animal feed. The growing demand for ethanol as an alternative fuel has driven world prices for corn upwards and speculators are being accused of hoarding grain in response to this. Rising oil prices increase the demand for corn to make environmentally-friendly biofuels in North America. And there are political overtones as the new government of President Calderon is criticized for the party's economic policies.

The poor in Mexico eat an average of 14 ounces of tortillas daily, giving them 40 percent of their protein. With the new prices, minimum wage workers could spend a third of their earnings on tortillas for their family. It seems that a profit and energy hungry world is further marginalizing its poorest citizens. To me, paying a dollar and a half for a kilogram of tortillas in Mexico is a bargain. But, I cannot imagine the hardship of living on four dollars a day.

When I visit Mexico, I enjoy fresh corn tortillas as often as possible. There is no equivalent available in the north and the frozen ones I get at a local Central American market seem stale and tough in comparison. I have purchased masa flour and tried to make my own at home, but they were dry and disgusting.

Our high energy demands and meat centred diets have a direct effect on the main food source of many cultures in the world who rely on corn as a staple. Like many environmental and social issues, the problem and the solutions are complex. My awareness of issues like these should increase my motivation to conserve energy and to choose meatless meals more often. In our culture of wealth and plenty it is so difficult to remember the less fortunate.

For further reading:
I bought this book when it was first published in the 1970s. The information is still relevant almost 30 years later.

More-with-Less Cookbook
Doris Janzen Longacre


  1. Thank you for addressing an issue of merit for us all. I too have the More with Less original book that Doris Longacre wrote, and the More with Less Cookbook. The information in both works is humbling and instructive for us to live using less resources. Live simply so that others may simply live.
    In one of life's many twists, when Doris died, her widower eventually remarried--to a second cousin of mine!

  2. Thanks, Ruth. I was unaware of this happening in Mexico.

    I worked with a lady from Mexico. For a birthday surprise (on my 50th) she brought home-made tortillas to work that she and her husband made together. After sampling that treat, I have turned down tortillas since. They were out of this world!

  3. Ruth, I also wasn't aware of this happening in Mexico - thanks for telling us. It's all very complex like you mentioned - but feeding livestock is part of the problem there and in this country too, not only the food, but our water supply, too.

  4. KGMom- The 1970s were a time of increased awareness of social and environmental issues. The boomers who were "flower children" then became much more materialistic as they aged. Doris' book was well received when she wrote it, and her message is worth repeating. You said it so well, "Live simply so that others may simply live."
    I remember feeling sad when Doris died so young. How interesting to hear of the connection with your family.

    Mary- I bet that Mexican lady was very pleased to share her tortillas with you. Making a good authentic tortilla is a lot of work on a small scale.

    Naturewoman- It is so hard to sort out the causes for issues like this. It is easier to ignore things we do not fully understand. We often feel that there is nothing we can do to change things anyway. A lot of people making small changes does make a difference.
    You are right about the risks to our water supply.

  5. Anonymous7:08 pm GMT-5

    But we sit on the other side of the fence. Until this coming season we could not pay for the corn seed nor the inputs to grow it due to the high US and European subsidies.

    They are hinting at $5 corn in Chicago this year.

    Thank goodness since we desperately need to rotate out the beans.


  6. FWT- Thanks for visiting and for presenting a view from the side of a farmer here.
    Farmers deserve a good return for their crops and I would be planting corn too with the higher prices. Part of the problem in Mexico is political. Also, the tortilla companies are being accused of manipulating prices and restricting supplies of corn. What happens to the corn after it leaves the farm that is the main concern. I am sure there could be enough corn grown for food and biofuels with the farmers being fairly reimbursed and the consumers being fairly charged.
    Free market vs government subsidies and control? I cannot answer that.

  7. I'm very behind in reading here Ruth, but wanted to thank you for talking on a personal level about something I'd heard barely mentioned on news radio.

    It seems a very complicated thing, and one that I'm sure will not benefit the poor people in this world.

  8. Laura- So much news never reaches our ears. I picked this story up on the BBC website which has a more global news view than CNN or CBC.


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