Jalisco, Mexico native Vivian Ibarra studied to be a dental hygienist – it’s steady work, decent pay and rife with opportunities to get in and out of the workforce to start a family. But upon graduation, she decided to forgo the dentist office. Instead, she returned home to help run the family berry farm…which these days, with the Mexican fruit sector in high gear, also means steady work and decent pay.
Heriberto Ibarra Gonzalez, her father, smiles when he talks about having his 26-year-old daughter home. The busy export market, along with a Driscoll’s production contract, means his 30-hectare operation is busier than ever. The only downside, he says, is sacrificing an annual holiday.
“You need to work, to be sustainable and productive,” he says. But the upside is that thriving markets mean this family farm is well-positioned to stay in the family.
In fact, Gonzalez’s next move – one that he also considers his biggest challenge – is transitioning to organic in the next three years, to further meet global trade demands. Despite pressure on consumer prices, he’s confident organic is a niche worth pursuing...and pursuing well. The United States Department of Agriculture says American consumers, who comprise his biggest market, want greater consistency in supermarket produce.
And that’s where farmers such as Gonzalez come in. Mexican producers’ commitment to quality, along with aggressive and imaginative marketing, has doubled fresh vegetable exports from the country in the past decade. Avocados are the big success story here, but berries are enjoying a bump too…although not as much as agave, from which tequila is made.
In fact, farmers are replacing corn fields with agave, an irony that makes it even more difficult to imagine how Mexico is going to replace the 18 million tonnes of corn it will lose if it proceeds with plans to cut off GMO corn imports from the U.S. The Mexican government has been convinced by anti-technology activists that GMO corn can breed with native varieties and contaminate entire fields. So it’s decreed a ban on yellow corn imports from the U.S by 2025, even though the country doesn’t grow enough to meet its own demands. Mexican farm groups, including the National Agricultural Council representing 1.8 million producers, have warned against doing so. But plans are going ahead.
Perhaps success on the agri-food export front has created a sense of bravado in Mexico. Ana Lucia Camacho Sevilla, secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Jalisco, told an International Federation of Agricultural Journalists meeting that Mexican farmers have time to start planning to grow more corn. But currently, no government financial incentives exist, so it’s hard to imagine why farmers would switch, unless corn prices rose significantly.
However, higher corn prices could drive up the cost of food. And in Mexico, that would be a particular hardship. Corn is a big part of the diet, but also, it’s central to their culture: teosinte, corn’s wild ancestor, originated about 10,000 years ago in what is now Mexico.
While all this is getting sorted out, Mexico is walking a fine line. Much of its export produce, like the berries produced by the Ibarra Gonzalez family, is headed for the U.S. But retaliatory measures, such as challenges based on the USMCA agreement, are all but assured if Mexico proceeds to shut out U.S. corn.
At the same time, though, the U.S. has come to rely on Mexican produce. Erratic weather and ceaseless droughts – at least until this year – have been tough on traditional domestic suppliers of winter fruit and vegetables in the U.S. Mexico – and others -- have filled the gap.
North America truly needs a continental trade culture, one that respects each country’s unique differences. Science is a good foundation for trade. But this whole episode speaks to the fact that genetically modified crops have yet to gain universal acceptance, even when evidence shows they’re safe.