Feb 8, 2017

Sin Maíz No Hay País, Without Corn There is No Country

Instead of putting nature in its place
we need to find our place in natures.

Sarah Baker

Various types of maize - www.cymmit.org
There is no corn without humankind.  Is there a Mexico without corn? 

Possibly the most completely domesticated of any field crops, corn (maize) could not have survived without the assistance of people.  In its present form, it could not have existed in the wild.  It is perhaps the most noteworthy plant breeding achievement of all time.  Mexicans like to say that ‘If you maintain maize, it will maintain you’.
Much maize is still planted and harvested by hand
Maize is thought to come from the plant teosinte from Central Mexico in the Balsas River Valley.  Resembling rice more than maize, it was initially assumed to be part of that family but opinions have since changed.  Depending who you read, it was first domesticated anywhere from 7,500 – 12,000 years ago (and I thought avocados had a long 8,000-year history). The maize we see today has evolved over a very long period! However, the great variability that first existed is fast dwindling.  Seventy-five percent of its diversity has vanished in the last 100 years.  In the beginning, maize grew anywhere from 2 to 40 feet (0.5 – 12 meter) tall with ears from 1 to 12-inch (2.5 – 30 cm) long.  Unfortunately, that biodiversity is under siege.

For the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas, growing maize was so important, it took precedent over all other activities.  Maize is much more than food; individual varieties are tied to specific indigenous groups and religious ceremonies.  They worshipped maize gods and goddesses.  The majority were goddesses since maize was associated with fertility.  They called themselves the ‘Children of maize’ and thought that maize was ‘The taste of life itself’. Maize seeds were viewed as ‘savings’, the ‘Seeds of Dignity’ and that maize was the ‘Living mediator between land and people’.  They even celebrate Day of Maize on September 29th.
Maize granary – prominent in many households
Maize is at the core of many creation stories and still occupies a central place in Mexican culture.  It is not only an economic commodity but an intermediate through which certain social and moral obligations and responsibilities, particularly reciprocity, (toward kin, neighbors, poorer villagers) must be met.  Maize is in their bones; good maize is part of a dignified life.

Making and cooking tortillas - Notice the metate (stone grinder) in foreground
and the comal (round cook top) in the background.
Over time, numerous varieties grew and the very best were traded.  Even Columbus upon discovering it said: ‘The gift of maize was far more valuable than the spices or gold I hoped to find.’  Maize is the second most important crop in the world after rice.
With NAFTA and GMO - - - what is the future?
Mexico grows about 23 million tons of maize or 3% of the global production.  This amount falls short of the 32-33 million tons required to feed everyone so they import the difference from the USA.  The average maize farm in Mexico is about 12 acres while in the USA it is 434 acres or 36 times larger. The average Mexican farm is not irrigated and therefore can only grow crops during the wetter season. 
Before 1994-NAFTA there were approximately 5 million maize farmers in the country.  Since then about 1.5 million farming jobs have been lost killing jobs in other sectors in the process.  About 6 million of that, now idle, population migrated to the USA to make ends meet.  Illegal immigration went up 75% in the five years following NAFTA.  Overall, twenty million Mexicans or 25% of the population were adversely affected by NAFTA.  Mexico now imports 42% of their food supply.
Local farmers could not compete with the mega-farms of the USA and their government subsidies dropping the price of maize by 66%.  In these calculations, no one is accounting for the negative effects of fuel, inorganic fertilizers, various chemicals and large quantity of water pumped out of the ground in the USA vs. the more naturally inclined way of growing the maize in Mexico where everything is used and recycled, (as tea, fuel, roofing) working with nature rather than against her.  To Mexicans, growing maize is a way of getting as close as possible to what nature does.  They even let usable weeds coexist among the stalks.
Corn is often cooked with husk still attached
Under pressure, the Mexican government has dismantled its support to maize farmers to promote export-oriented fruit and vegetable production like avocado and coffee.   They also ended up exporting labor!  For the ones staying behind, maize growing went from livelihood to sideline, needing other work to stay afloat.  They grow it for themselves only and as an act of political resistance, a staunch definition of their true way of life.  Their motto being ‘Plant to eat first or you will wind up working for others.’

The average Mexican eats a little over one pound (0.7 kilo) of maize per day or 70% of their caloric intake.  Mixing the maize with beans makes a complete protein. 


When we lived in a very small ranch in the Sierra Madre we saw that first hand.  Maize for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner.  We also saw that they preserved their best maize seeds for their next planting or to exchange with neighbors, assuring continuity of the most promising plants.  Thousand year-old traditions are not written in books but in the collective memory of the community.
Thanks to NAFTA Mexico grows less maize, has more maquiladoras, and now needs to import a far less superior maize to feed their own.  In the town of Puebla, Mexico they say ‘We went from Maize to Blue Jeans Capital of the World.’
Beauty of corn - www.fineartamerica.com – Elena Elisseeva
What about GMO?

First, let’s not forget that Mexico is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, extending 2,000 miles (3200 km) NNW to SSE and going from sea level to 18,406 feet (5,610 meters).  In that diversity, Mexicans have been able to create some 85,000 unique strains or sub-varieties of maize in Oaxaca alone (one state)!  Maize is very adaptable but it is this very feature that makes it highly susceptible to GMO contamination.

Maize has conformed to specific local conditions.  It has fine-tuned itself to diverse niches.  From alkaline to saline or acidic soils to frost tolerance, altitude, drought, wind, or pest’s resistance to being able to fix its own nitrogen!  Most maize is intricately part of the ecosystem it is grown in.  GMO maize is akin to selling hunger and bringing cultural genocide.    Genetic reserves are stored in the native seeds.  Traditional knowledge lies within them.  This is there the alternative lies for the food production model, especially when faced with the uncertainties of climate change.
Tests have been done in very remote areas showing that maize has already been tainted and farmers are very worried.  Results show anywhere from 3 to 60% contamination.  The studies conducted in the USA regarding the interaction between genetically modified maize and its surrounding environment were useless in Mexico because they didn’t account for intricate ecosystems.  They only address large monoculture.  The 9-10 million tons of maize brought in to Mexico from the USA is probably at fault here so farmers have requested that all maize be ground right at the border before moving any further inland to lessen chances of contamination. That request has not been granted. 
Tortillas – About 0.7 kilo per person per day!
Maize is life.  Mexicans cook 600+ different dishes from maize.  Even making masa is considered an art form.  Good masa ‘smells fresh and grainy with none of the sourness or sweetness of packaged tortillas’. 

The tortillas you eat in most major Mexican cities are no longer made of white corn flour that has been nixtamalized.  Not only do you get an inferior tasting tortilla but you also eat one with less bioavailable nutrients.

Like the rural folks like to say: ‘City folks say we live like animals in the country but in the city, they eat like animals…’
I cannot think of anything in our society that is remotely close to maize’s value to Mexicans so it is difficult to associate with everything it means to them but we have seen the veneration farmers bestow upon it while living at a small remote mountain ranch.  It was inspiring.  Can the small farmers and a healthier way of life win over corporations? 
Always so happy and welcoming
In 2007, a National Campaign called Sin Maíz No Hay País began. Farmers, civil and human rights, and environmental organizations coming together to educate people and demand the government to stop ignoring the problems of small farmers and the crisis the whole farming system is going through.  Topics are sustainable agriculture, diet and food supply, public policy and GMOs.  

Sources:  Sarah Khan, Elizabeth Fitting, Claire Hope Cummings.
Tamales for Candlemas
Side note:  In honor of Candlemas (Día de la Candelaria) on February 2nd, I would like to highlight its connection to maize.  Candlemas is a tradition when candles are blessed and given to churchgoers, symbolizing that Jesus would be ‘a light for revelation to the gentiles…’
Religion here is a mixture of indigenous and Christian beliefs.  Interestingly, many pre-Columbian civilizations thought the beginning of the year was around the beginning of February.  To this day, many indigenous take cobs that will become seeds for the next sowing season to the temple (church) to be purified and blessed, a tradition that survived the Spanish conquest and is still an important part of many communities in Mexico.  This is also a time when many delicious tamales are made and eaten.

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