The Farm Bill Isn’t Worth Cashews

Michael Pollan had a lot to say recently about U.S. agricultural policy — conveniently packaged and available later this year as the Farm Bill 2007. His article reminded me of Mexico. When I lived in el D.F., the Agriculture Attache and I struck up a cordial relationship. We both had our reasons. For his part it was because his wife was Indian and he saw in me a chance to toss out some Hindi in the hallways. “Aray, FSOwalla, kya hal? Teekh hai?” For me, I had discovered that he kept a large jar of cashew nuts in his office, and could score some just by stopping by on a variety of pretexts. Soon enough, however, his interest in speaking Hindi to me waned (I didn’t know any Hindi, that may have been the problem.) But by then, my capacity and desire for a daily cashew nut pick-me-up at about 4:12pm had become a near addiction.

Now it seems that we’re more and more addicted, as a country and individuals, to corn. Corn prices have gone up the wazoo in recent months as our President has apparently concluded that corn-based ethanol is the way for the U.S. to come out from under the oily thumbs of leaders in Iran and Venezuela. Of course, but not surprisingly, this may not actually happen. But for now, corn costs more and it costs more everywhere, including in Mexico. It’s difficult to imagine what this has done to the Mexican economy, reliant as it is on corn. Back then, we saw the farmers protesting almost weekly in front of the Embassy. Sometimes it was your garden variety “Cuba si! Yanquis no!” but for a good percentage of the time it was farmers. The essence of their message was, “You give us back our livelihoods and we’ll give you back your fucking corn.” See, we subsidize our mega farms and they in turn flood the Mexican market with corn, making a tidy profit and driving Mexican corn farmers out of business. We can talk about Mexico’s lack of competitiveness and outdated ejido system, but from the U.S. farming perspective that’s corn politics in the here and now for you. And what else does pushing all that corn mean? Well, immigration from Mexico to the U.S. has plenty of root causes, but it’s clear to anyone that has lived there that a huge percentage of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. are people who haven’t been able to compete with the overwhelming influx of subsidized corn and produce that’s created and sold thanks to the U.S. Farm Bill and NAFTA.

Don’t care about the goings on South of the border? Well, perhaps most disturbing is the ubiquitousness of corn in our diets. Pollan has written a book about that too. Item #1 for purchase from Powell’s bookstore in 2 weeks.



  1. Corn, so much to say about it.

    In Mexico the tortilla price went to the roof some months ago. Around 15-20 pesos per kilo, that’s around half a day of minimum wage. I thought that was going to ignite a Revolution, considering that the diet of 40% of Mexicans is just a tortilla with some beans and chile. But no, nothing happened, the government intervened and set the price in 8 pesos per kilo.

    On other level. Monsanto is lobbying heavily down here to make transgenic corn even more widely available. One side effect has been that many native corn species are disappearing after getting mixed up with this crap. And the other will be that Mexican corn exports will be banned from Europe, because transgenic import crops are rapidly being forbiden. Even if they are not meant for human or animal consumption.


  2. I just read his article in the NY Times. I’m looking forward to grocery shopping in Prague for this very reason — shopping for foods that expire because they are not stuffed with god-knows-what.

    On the other hand, I have been known to scarf down a whole box of Velveeta Shells and Cheese.

    Humans, so many contradictions.


  3. I can’t go too far into the GMO debate because, frankly, I don’t know enough about it. Cross-fertilization of different products itself has been going on for years around the world (and in Mexico), and it seems to me that the manner (natural, synthetic) of genetically altering an organsim is just as important as the debate on whether it’s ethical. And, of course, who makes money from the process. There’s a tendency for humans to want the uncorrupted original, but that’s more difficult to find than one thinks. Each time corn goes abroad from Mexico adds to the changing.


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