Friday, October 21, 2011


The Food Crisis Strikes Again 

by Esther Vivas

The threat of a new food crisis is already a reality. The price of food began to rise to record levels again, according to the FAO Food Price Index of February, 2011, which does a monthly analysis of global prices of a basic food basket made up of grains, seed oils, dairy products, meat and sugar. The Index came to a new historic maximum, the highest since the FAO began to study food prices in 1990. In the past months, prices have leveled off but analysts predict more hikes in the coming months.
This increase in the cost of food, especially basic grains, has serious consequences for southern countries with low incomes and dependency on food imports, and for the millions of families in these countries that devote between 50 and 60 percent of their income to food—a figure that rises to 80 percent in the poorest countries. In these countries, the rise in the price of food products makes them inaccessible.As long as agriculture and food continue to be considered merchandise in the hands of the highest bidder, and business interests prevail over food needs and the limits of the planet, our food security and the welfare of the earth are far from assured.
We are approaching a billion people—one out of every six on the planet—that today do not have access to adequate food. World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, affirmed that the current food crisis has increased the number of persons who suffer chronic hunger by 44 million. In 2009, this number was surpassed, reaching 1.023 billion people undernourished on the planet, a figure that went down slightly in 2010, but without returning to the levels before the food and economic crisis of 2008 and 2009.
The present crisis takes place in the context of an abundance of food. Food production has multiplied over the three decades since the sixties, while the world population has merely doubled since then. There’s plenty of food. Contrary to what international institutions like the FAO, World Bank and World Trade Organization say, it’s not a problem of production, but rather a problem of access to food. These organizations urge an increase in production through a new Green Revolution, which would only make the food, social and ecological crises worse.
Popular Rebellions
The popular rebellions in northern Africa and the Middle East had among the many catalysts the rise in food prices. In December of 2010, in Tunes, the poorest of the population occupied the frontline of the conflict, demanding, among other things, access to food.
In January of 2011, youth demonstrated in Algeria blocking highways, burning stores and attacking police stations to protest for the rise of prices in basic foods. Similar cases were seen in Jordan, Sudan and Yemen. Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world, and depends on food imports.
Evidently other factors came into play in the uprisings: high unemployment, lack of democratic freedoms, corruption, lack of housing and basic services, etc. In any case, the rise in food prices was one of the initial catalysts.
A Central Cause
What are the causes of the new spike in the cost of our meals? Although international institutions and experts have pointed to several elements such as meteorological phenomena that affect harvests in produce countries, the increase in the demand in emerging countries, financial speculation, the growing production of agrofuels, among others—various indices point to speculation with raw food materials as one of the main reasons for food price increases.
In 2007-2008 the world experienced a profound food crisis. Basic foods prices such as wheat, soy and rice rose by 130%, 87% and 74% respectively. Then, as now, several causes converged, but the most important were production of agrofuels and the growing speculative investment in the food futures markets. But this increase in the price of food leveled off in 2009, in part probably due to the economic crisis and a reduction in financial speculation.
By mid 2010, with international financial markets calmed down and huge sums of public money injected into the private banks, food speculating struck again and the price of foods began to rise. To “save the banks”, after the financial crisis of 2008-2009, it is estimated that the governments of rich countries gave a total of $20 trillion dollars to stabilize the banking system and lower interest rates.
With the influx of money, speculators saw incentives to acquire new loans and buy merchandise that predictably would rise rapidly in value. The same banks, high-risk funds, etc. that caused the subprime mortgage crisis are currently responsible for speculation in raw materials and the rise in the price of food, taking advantage of unregulated global commodity markets.
The food crisis is intimately linked to the economic crisis and the logic of a system that promotes, for example, plans to bail out Greece and Ireland while sacrificing their sovereignty to international institutions, just as it sacrifices food sovereignty of the peoples to the interests of the market.
A Grower’s Guarantee or a Speculator’s Bonanza?
There has always been some speculation in the price of foods and this is the logic behind futures markets. In their current form, futures markets date back to the mid-1900s when they began in the United States. These are legal standardized agreements to buy and sell physical merchandise in a previously established time period in the future and have been a mechanism to guarantee a minimum price to the producer faced with the oscillations of the market.
It works like this: Farmers sell their production to traders before harvest to protect themselves from uncertainties in the weather, for example, and to guarantee a future price. The trader also benefits. When the harvest is bad, the farmer still gets a good income and when the harvest is optimal, the trader benefits even more.
This same mechanism is used by speculators to make money off the deregulation of the raw materials markets that was spurred in the mid-nineties in the United States and Great Britain by banks, free-market politicians and high-risk funds in the context of the process of deregulation of the world economy. The contracts to buy and sell food became “derivatives” that could be traded independently of the real agricultural transactions. A new business was born—food speculation.
Speculators today have more weight in the futures markets, even though these transactions have nothing to do with real supply and demand. Mike Masters, manager of Masters Capital Management, points out that in 1998 speculative financial investment in the agricultural sectors was around 25% and today it is close to 75%. These transactions are carried out in the markets, the most important of which on the world level is the commodities market in Chicago, while in Europe food and raw materials are traded in the futures markets of London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.
A “100% Natural Deposit”
In 2006/2007, following the fall in the high-risk mortgage loan market in the United States, institutional investors like banks, insurance companies and investment funds sought safer and higher yield places to invest their money. Food and raw materials became a popular alternative. As the price of food soared, investments in the food futures markets rose, pushing the price of grains up and worsening inflation in food prices.
In Germany, the Deutsche Bank announced easy earnings if invested in rising agricultural products. And similar business deals were promoted by the major European bank BNP Paribas. Catalunya Caixa urged its clients in January 2011 to invest in raw materials under the slogan a “100% natural deposit”.
What did they offer? A guarantee of 100% of capital with the possibility of obtaining profits of up to 7% annually. How? According to the ads, based on “the evolution of yields in three food products: sugar, coffee and corn”. To assure such high yields, the ads pointed out that prices of these three products had increased at 61%, 34% and 38% respectively over the past months due to “growing demand that is increasing above the rate of production”, because of the increase in world population, and agrofuels production.
Catalunya Caixa left out important information, however: food speculation that provided such handsome profits increases the price of food, makes it inaccessible to large parts of the population in the global South and condemns thousands of people to hunger, poverty and death in these countries.
Oil Dependency
Another element that exacerbated the food crisis is the heavy dependency on oil of the current model of food production and distribution. The rise in the price of oil had a direct impact on the similar rise in the cost of basic foods. In 2007 and 2008 the price of oil and the price of foods reached record levels. Between July of 2007 and June of 2008, crude oil went from 75 dollars a barrel to 140 dollars, while the price of basic foods went from 160 dollars to 225, according to the FAO Food Index.
Food and agriculture have become heavily dependent on oil. Following the Second World War and with the Green Revolution in the sixties and seventies, and with the supposed increase in production, an intensive and industrial model of agriculture was adopted. In the current system, our food travels thousands of kilometers before it arrives on our tables; production requires the intensive use of farm machinery, chemicals pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. This model could not exist without oil.
The rise in the price of oil and the strategy of governments to combat climate change has led to a growing investment in the production of alternative fuels, agrofuels, such as biodiesel and bioethanol, made from sugar, corn and other crops. But this production has entered into direct competition with food production for consumption and is now another cause of the rise in food prices.
The World Bank recognizes that when the price of oil goes over fifty dollars a barrel, a 1% increase causes a 0.9% increase in the price of corn, since “for every dollar that the price of oil rises the profitability of ethanol rises and consequently the demand for corn grows.”
Since 2004, two-thirds of the rise in world production of corn was destined to satisfy the North American demand for agrofuels. In 2010, 35% of the corn harvest in the United States, which is 14% of world production, was used to produce ethanol. And the tendency is on the rise.
But beyond the causes such as food speculation and the rise in oil prices that has an impact on the growing investment in agrofuels, leading to competition among grain production for consumption and for transportation, the food and agriculture system is profoundly vulnerable and in the hands of the market. The growing liberalization of the sector in the last decades, the privatization of natural resources (water, land, seed), the imposition of a international model of trade at the service of private interests, etc., has led to the current crisis.
As long as agriculture and food continue to be considered merchandise in the hands of the highest bidder, and business interests prevail over food needs and the limits of the planet, our food security and the welfare of the earth are far from assured.
Esther Vivas is a member of the Center for the Study of Social movements (Centro de Estudios sobre Movimientos Sociales) in the Universidad Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). She is the author of “En pie contra la deuda externa” (El Viejo Topo, 2008) among other publictions, and a contributor to the CIP Americas Program


Agrotoxins Kill

Posted on: 18/10/2011 by
By Alfredo Acedo
A beautiful green and gold checked carpet hides the tragedy of the Yaqui Valley. This northeastern region of Mexico has been devastated by intensive use of agrochemicals under a capitalist model of agriculture that has polluted the air, soil and water, and lethally affected the lives of its people for more than half a century.
The Yaqui Valley covers an area of 225 thousand hectares of canal-irrigated land in the southern part of the state of Sonora. Most of it is sown in wheat, corn, cotton, vegetables and animal feed. Together with Baja California, the region produces 65 per cent of Mexico’s annual wheat output.
I was born in a small farming town south of Ciudad Obregón, and lived there until my adolescence. Several times I saw my father come home from work in the fields with the symptoms of poisoning. He operated agricultural machinery, including tractors fitted with equipment to spread pesticide, defoliant and fertilizer. He died of brain cancer not long after his 61st birthday. A malignant glioma extinguished his life in less than six months, before the powerless eyes of his loved ones.
The criminal irresponsibility of companies that make and sell agrotoxins continues to be an open case. Given the complete lack of information available to farmworkers, the people who apply the chemicals, and the general public, just pasting a warning label on is not enough to alert them to the substances they’re exposed to. After being applied without any kind of protective gear, the containers are abandoned wherever and pilots clean out the tanks of their planes by discharging residues from the air, even over populated areas.
Where I grew up, as soon as children are tall enough to carry sprayer tanks on their backs or strong enough to hold a flag to direct a fumigator plane they start to work in the fields. For a few pesos a day, children work at jobs that mean they are surrounded by a cloud of poison for hours on end. Even if they manage to escape immediate poisoning, the harmful effects of cumulative exposure are felt soon after.
Since childhood, I have carried in my olfactory memory the smell of weed-killer as a macabre form of nostalgia.
Poison in Mother’s Milk
It is well known that children develop best when nourished with milk from their mother’s breast. This indisputable medical fact, however, is not so true for children growing up in the Yaqui Valley. Research over the last two decades has documented the presence of organochlorine pesticides in the breast milk of Valley residents. A 1990 study commissioned by the municipality found that 85.71 per cent of samples from lactating mothers in Pueblo Yaqui contained between one and three types of pesticide.  The compounds detected were aldrin, HCH (lindane), technical DDT and p,p’-DDE, with average concentrations of 0.11, 0.17, 0.27 and 1.90 parts per million respectively. The research showed that levels of lindane, technical DDT and p,p’-DDE were above limits for milk, as established by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.
Subsequent studies have confirmed these dramatic findings. Three years ago, another study carried out among Pueblo Yaqui residents traced for the first time the transfer of pesticide through the placenta from pregnant women to their newborn babies. Samples of the mothers’ blood, amniotic fluid and umbilical cords contained the pesticides alpha-HCH, gamma-HCH (lindane), HCB, dieldrin, endrin and DDE.
Three-month-old breastfeeding babies in the area showed the same pesticides in their blood. At six months, the substances were still present. Some had been partially broken down, but concentrations of lindane and dieldrin exceeded levels found in people with normal exposure.
Less than three years ago, heavy metal levels in water samples from the farming towns of Bácum, Pueblo Yaqui and Quetchehueca exceeded the limits set by the Official Mexican Standard. Organochlorine pesticides such as malathion and parathion were found in drainage water in Pueblo Yaqui and Quetchehueca.
Chronic exposure to agrotoxins, even at low doses, causes grave damage to human health, including cancer, chromosomal changes, congenital malformation, problems with the nervous system and disorders in the endocrine system, among others.
Recently some governmental and educational institutions have been pressured by public opinion into half-heartedly investigating the topic and teaching about it. They have created special waste bins for poisoned containers with the idea of promoting the safe use of agrochemicals. The problem with this idea is that it lacks foundation – there is no safety from agricultural poisons, whether you are a farm worker, a rural resident or a consumer of the products of industrial agriculture.
Once applied, agrochemicals contaminate rivers, aquifers, coasts, air, soil and food. Human beings are exposed to them through inhalation, ingestion and physical contact.
Each year around the world there are three million serious poisonings from agrotoxins, killing at least 300,000 people. Ninety-nine per cent of these deaths occur in developing countries.
A Nobel Prize for the Green Revolution
The main author of this environmental and human disaster was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Norman Ernest Borlaug, was a U.S. researcher whose techniques for genetically improving wheat became the basis of the Green Revolution. His techniques were developed in test fields paid for by the Mexican government – in this case, the Northwestern Center of Biological Research, in the heart of the Yaqui Valley.
Borlaug brought in a new model of agricultural production, promoted since the mid-20th century and based on the intensive use of hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The model also required extensive mechanization of the countryside to facilitate the expansion of agribusiness. When World War II ended, these were the tactics imposed by the military-industrial complex to maintain hefty profits. Explosives were turned into nitrogenized fertilizers, lethal gases into pesticides, and war tanks into tractors.
After that, the use of agrotoxins became widespread in agriculture with the justification that increased yields would end hunger. Their use extended beyond agriculture into industry, and even into public health campaigns, such as the effort to combat diseases like malaria through the massive use of pesticides.
The agribusiness model generated a mindset, it extended single-crop farming, it spurred the concentration of land in the hands of a few large landowners, and it consolidated the political power of the big producers. This increased labor exploitation, country-to-city migration and rural unemployment. At the same time, it increased the capitalist profits of large rural landowners along with transnational chemical, metallurgical and biotechnological companies. From the start, they had strong support from the government and scientific and technological institutions. For instance, a law was made worldwide to subsidise the multinational companies with public money.
Along with the myth of the agricultural Titans–the supposed pioneers of the opening of the valley to irrigation and cultivation—Borlaug’s fame grew. He became almost a lay saint to the big landowners in Sonora. They built streets and statues in his name and continue to pay him homage in some parts.
Not long before the end of Borlaug’s long life, I asked him if the Green Revolution fulfill its promise to end hunger. He admitted that we had reached the limit of increasing yields with Green Revolution technologies and said it was necessary to confront the problem with policy decisions. This was in the early nineties. Today, it could not be clearer that the solutions to the food crisis do not lie with technology, but with a radical transformation in the patterns of food production, distribution and consumption.
For Borlaug, the environmental harm of agrotoxins linked to the technological package of his revolution wasn’t important.
As a result of the model, there are 20 large agrochemical manufacturers in the world today, with sales volume exceeding 40 billion dollars a year and producing 2.5 million tons of poison annually.
The main companies in this market are Syngenta, Bayer, Monsanto, Dow Agrosciences and Du Pont. Latin America is an important and growing market for them, where turnover from the sale of agrochemicals grew by 18 per cent between 2006 and 2007 and 36.2 per cent between 2007 and 2008.
A study of chemicals used in the Yaqui Valley between 1995 and 1999 found the most common to be herbicides (34%), carbamates (27.53%), organophosphates (27.53%), fungicides, organochlorines and pyrethroids. The total amount of active ingredient released into the valley was 3146 tons, 616 kg. Chemicals were used most in 1998 when 806 tons,123 kg were released. Illnesses suffered by people in the valley included bone-marrow aplasia, acute leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (Valenzuela Gómez, L. 2000. Tesis Profesional. ITSON. Ciudad Obregón, Son.)
A working agronomist who preferred to remain anonymous said the pesticide he uses most at the moment is glyphosate, produced by Monsanto and marketed in Mexico as Faena (Roundup, elsewhere). According to a recent study, glyphosate formulae and metabolic products cause the death of embryos, placentas and human umbilical cells in vitro, even in small amounts.
In the Yaqui Valley, according to the anonymous source, parathion and malathion are still being applied. The former, which is extremely toxic, is prohibited in several countries and by the Rotterdam Convention. As for the latter, the USA Occupation and Health Administration has set a limit of 15 milligrams per cubic meter of air at work, for shifts of eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. These recommendations are almost impossible to observe.
Public Education Campaign
Agrotoxins are the key ingredients of industrial agriculture. They are made up of poisonous chemical substes including pesticides, defoliants, herbicides and fungicides. Chemical fertilizers come under this grouping, as their polluting effects degrade soils and their components work their way into the food chain through swamps and waterways. Genetically modified seeds should also have a place in this category, linked as they are to the intensive use of carcinogenic pesticides including glyphosate, and to plants that produce their own insecticide.
Starting from this definition and with abundant information charting the size of the enemy, representatives from all the countries belonging to the Latin American Coordinating Committee of Rural Organizations (Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo-CLOC) met in August 2011. In a peasants’ education center located in Viotá, Colombia, they analyzed the problem from the point of view of their different regions: the southern cone, the Andes, Central America, North America (Mexico) and the Caribbean.
The group decided to launch a public education campaign under the slogan “Agrotoxins Kill”, to inform public opinion, end the myth that using agrotoxins can ever be safe, and fight for their definitive eradication.
The campaign aims to challenge agrobusiness ideology, influence public opinion and reach communities and families. They hope it will create a united front for environmentalists, peasants, the working class, students, consumers and anyone who wants food production to respect the environment.
Using all kinds of media available, representatives will explain how and why countries should focus efforts on producing diversified food that is healthy for everyone and based in agroecology. In the same way they will name and shame the companies that manufacture and sell agrotoxins, and wake society up to the need to change our food-growing model, which currently produces poisoned food, destroys the environment and delivers bumper profits for a small few.
An organization was designated to lead the campaign for each region, with the participation of all CLOC’s organizations. In Mexico, this will be done by the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasants’ Organizations (Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas). A team will be put together for continental collaboration, supported by a Quito-based operational secretariat.
The campaign will be launched on December 3, Global No Pesticides Use Day, with a pre-launch during the International Agroecology Conference in Havana, Cuba in November.
It is urgent that we begin to break the perverse circle of agricultural production whereby the same transnational company produces the seed and the toxins, and then brings its poisons to our table.
Alfredo Acedo communications director and advisor to the National Union of Regional Autonomous Campesino Organizations (Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas-UNORCA), and a contributor to the CIP Americas Program .
Translated from Spanish original by Nalina Eggert
Photograph by Arnoldo Celis


Mexican Constitution Now Recognizes Right to Food

Posted on: 24/09/2011 by
Alfredo Acedo
To die of hunger is to be assassinated.  Alberto Morlachetti
On April 29, 2011 the Chamber of Deputies approved the constitutional reform that establishes the right to food in Mexico. On August 17, the Senate received reports that the required majority of the states in the country had approved the reform and ordered its publication in the official federal record.
For more than fifteen years, lawmakers—absurdly–seemed to prefer to abolish the desire to eat rather than comply with international agreements on human rights signed by Mexico regarding the recognition of the right to food. In the traditional style of handling agreements as if they were political coinage, in April representatives sought to present some result in a legislative period that had produced very little. The right to food was the only significant reform the Chamber of Deputies could pass in the first regular session, after being unable to agree on major reforms on labor, elections and national security.
The Chamber unanimously approved the reform, with 404 votes in favor and four abstentions. The right to food then became part of Mexico’s Constitution. With it, the State has an obligation to guarantee the right (addition to Art. 4) and to assure sufficient supply of basic foods through integral and sustainable rural development (addition to the Art. 27).
The modifications are:
“Art. 4: Every person has the right to adequate food to maintain his or her wellbeing and physical, emotional and intellectual development. The State must guarantee this right.
“Art. 27, Clause XX: Sustainable and integral rural development (…) will also have among its objectives that the State guarantee sufficient and timely supply of basic foods as established by the law.”
If in some ways you are what you eat, then with the right to food we regain the right to exist. Food can be considered a value that allows us to reproduce as human beings, not just merchandise sold on the market to make money. At present, 30 million people in the country do not have access to minimal food requirements. More than a fourth of the Mexican population suffers food deficiencies.1
A Triumph for Grassroots Organizations
The reform is a battle won after 16 years of demonstrations, demands and proposals, during which, especially in the last stage, grassroots organizations carried out intense efforts at negotiation and lobbying among legislators in both houses of Congress.
Taken together with the Law of Sustainable Rural Development, which could now become part of the implementing legislation for the constitutional reform, the constitutional right to food represents an enormous advance in terms of human rights. It is also a key that opens the door to a change in the model, with rural polices favorable to small-scale agriculture. Today Mexico has improved legal conditions to reactivate rural production and the countryside, to restore traditional agricultural knowledge and to guarantee food sovereignty, nutrition and a dignified life for all.
To date, the right to food has been approved in 18 states—more than the 16 necessary to become federal law. This includes states dominated by different political parties, such as Guerrero and Chihuahua. Other states include: Aguascalientes, Baja California Sur, Campeche, Colima, Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Puebla, Sonora, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Yucatan and Zacatecas.
The exercise of the right to food will still take time to become a reality though, in a country where laws and practice are often far apart and where poverty and hunger have reached alarming levels.
A Little History
In 1986, the eminent nutritionist Salvador Zubirán presented a proposal to recognize the right to food. His purpose was to end negligence on the part of the government in this area. The historical consequence of government indifference, particularly for peasant farmers, indigenous Mexicans and women, has been a deficiency in nutritional intake, and an insufficient diet that keeps million of people from developing their physical and intellectual potential.
Eight years later, in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. NAFTA finished off the process of dismantling the institutions and support programs for food production in Mexico that began with the Mexican revolution. Shortly after, the Mexican Front for the Right to Food proposed the first legislative initiative for the right to food to be incorporated into the Constitution as a way of protecting the interests of the people, which were betrayed by the government when it agreed to disadvantageous conditions under trade liberalization.
Later there were more than twenty proposals in both houses on Congress.  Most were based on the tenets of international agreements that guarantee the right to food signed by the federal government, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
For the National Union of Regional Autonomous Peasant Organizations (Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas-UNORCA), the recognition of the right to food formed part of a strategy to push social and economic reforms in the country. Along with other grassroots organizations, UNORCA helped draft and lobby Congress on a final proposal that ended the long period of legislative inaction.
The Senate approved a decree in December 2004, which was then sent to the Chamber of Deputies, where it remained several years until it passed committee and was then debated and agreed on last year. This measure led to the final reform that became law in August 2011.
This puts the Mexican legislation in line with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which stipulates that hunger should be eliminated and all people have permanent access to a sufficient diet. According to that international norm, governments have the obligation to protect and guarantee the right to food. The Convenant also prohibits the use of toxic substances in the production of foodstuffs.
Hunger at the Doorstep
Although the right to food is now recognized in the Constitution, poverty, hunger and exclusion in the country have worsened to the point that to put the right to food in practice requires a radical transformation in the economic model. According to government counts, an additional 12 million people fell into poverty between 2006 and 2010.
The number of families that do not have enough resources to acquire the basic food basket increased, with 6.1 million people entering that category in the last four years. Official statistics report that there are 21 million Mexicans who go hungry, 28 million with considerable diet deficiencies, and nearly 50 million with some level of food scarcity. At the same time, the population suffering from obesity and associated illnesses has grown. Astoundingly, Mexico is now number-one in the world for percentage of overweight people and second in obesity. Forty percent of Mexican children suffer from malnutrition and another 33 percent suffer from child obesity.
Mexico has lost its food sovereignty. Its ability to feed the population depends on imports that now compose nearly half of national food consumption.
If the efficiency of a national government is measured by the wellbeing of its people, the current Mexican government is not just a failure—its an unmitigated disaster. In just four years, it has driven 12, 205,356 Mexicans into poverty. This represents an increase of 27 percent in the number of poor people in the country. Poverty as measured in personal assets surged from 45.5 million people in 2006 to 57.7 million in 2010.
Today half the population is poor. And that’s according to the official numbers. The calculations of independent experts, using methods of the International Labor Organization and the World Bank, show more than 75 percent of Mexican population in poverty.
The highest levels of poverty are found in the countryside. In the rural sector, 17 million people live in poverty–65 percent of the population. Two years ago the percentage was 62.4%, or 15.9 million, according to official data.
The situation is even worse for indigenous populations. Only two of every ten do not live in poverty. Some 5.3 million indigenous people—79.3 percent—live without fulfilling basic needs, and 40 percent live in extreme poverty. The percentage of the indigenous population in poverty increased between 2008 and 2010; two years ago it was 75.9 percent.
Meanwhile, a handful of investors on the Mexican stock market now represent 45 percent of the national economy.3 While millions of people get poorer, a few are getting incredibly rich; the value of the shares held by 203,023 investors–equivalent to 0.18 percent of the total population–came to more than six trillion pesos. Less than one percent of the population concentrates nearly half the wealth of the nation.
Rural Organizations Take the Lead
In this context, farmers’ organizations recently converged to become a third force to be reckoned with, alongside the official National Peasant Confederation (CNC, by its Spanish initials) and the National Agriculture and Livestock Council that represents the interests of large private producers and transnational corporations.  The new coalition is made up of the organizations that created the movement “The Countryside Can’t Take it Anymore” in 2003, which surpassed the CNC in influence and placed issues of the right to food on the national agenda.
This block of left-leaning farm organizations is demanding that the constitutional recognition of the right to food be fully implemented through major changes in food and agricultural policy that the groups have been fighting for for years. This implies a necessary transformation of the model of food production and consumption. Legal changes must lead to a review of public policy in the rural sector and a restructuring of government programs that deal with food, to reduce the current emphasis on cash transfer programs for the rural poor, in favor of support for production, especially among the critical and very large sector of smallscale farmers. A thorough institutional reform is needed that should include the creation of a National Commission on Food, through a new food law or incorporation into the Rural Sustainable Development Law
The reform should also oblige the government to evaluate policies on agrofuels, since agrofuel production demands a large amount of water and land and so competes with food production. The bad idea of converting food grains such as corn into fuel is a preface to disaster. In the battle between food and fuel, the poor and the hungry are at the mercy of the market in the definition of food prices. It’s estimated that it takes 200 kilos of corn to fill a single car’s tank—enough to feed a person during an entire year.
Mexico has already seen the effects of the rises in prices of food products caused in part by the production of agrofuels. In January of 2007, the price of tortillas rose more than 400 percent, gravely affecting the daily diet of poor families. Corn makes up more than half of the caloric intake of poor Mexican families. As a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the country lost self-sufficiency and now imports corn, even the traditional white corn.
There is an alarming degree of food dependency in Mexico.5 The nation has reached 25 billion dollars in food imports—ten times more that it imported in 1982 and double the imports of 2006. The figure is greater than the total of public resources to the rural sector and six times greater than the resources to support rural production. The cost of imports already surpassed the amount of remittances sent to the country by Mexican migrants. The value of food imports has doubled in just four years, from 12.5 billion dollars in 2006 to the 25 billion dollars mentioned in 2010.
According to data from the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico imports 33 percent of the corn it consumes, 95 percent of soybeans, 80 percent of rice, 31 percent of wheat, 40 percent of beef and pork, 20 percent of beans, and it occupies first place in the world as an importer of powdered milk
Budget for the Right to Food
The right to food must be a top priority for the 2012 budget, with the aim of recovering food sovereignty by making qualitative changes in the rural budget, rather than simply increasing amounts
For UNORCA, it is absolutely necessary that the constitutional right to food be incorporated in the 2012 federal budget. The organization recently sent Congress a proposal for the rural budget that proposes the reorientation of policies, programs and amounts to address the serious problem of food in the country.
Based on the new right to food, the proposal seeks to mandate the creation of a National Food Program: “Conforming to Article 42 of the Law of Budget and Fiscal Responsbility stemming from the approval of the constitutional reform that recognizes the Right to Food, the federal government should include this programatic modification. Now it is proposed that the Chamber of Deputies (through its Budget Commission) present to the Treasury Ministery a measure to create a fifteenth program called the National Food Program, which would be funded with resources from thirteen programs that would be merged and coordinated, giving a total of 82,089 milliion pesos.”
Another objective states that the National Food Program should reduce food dependency by 30 percent during 2012, by setting up production modules for local consumption, but above all by establishing specific national production goals in the rural budget. In this way, the budget becomes a real instrument of transformation and change in the model of food produtcion and consumption in the country.
The organization also proposes, “To create the Mexican Food Institute as an autonomous public institution charged with guaranteeing a healthy, adequate and quality diet that fills the nutritional needs of the population, and as an agency charged with implementing the constitutional reform that recognizes the Right to Food. It is regretable that a problem like basic food, which affects more than half of all Mexicans, does not have a specific agency to address it. Just as constitutional reforms before led to the creation of the National Commission on Human Rights, the Federal Electoral Institute, and modifications to the Comission for the Development of Indian Peoples, the same is clearly necessary in the case of food, which impacts all Mexicans.”
The National Food Program is an initiative to promote local food production and begin to resolve the terrible contradiction that it is precisely in the countryside, where food is produced, that we find widespread food poverty, malnutrition and hunger.
Alfredo Acedo is Director of Social Communication and Advisor to the National Union of Regional Autonomous Peasant Organizations (UNORCA), Mexico.
1. Mexican Senate, LXI Legislature. Public Session of the Permanent Commission of Congres, held Aug. 17, 2011.
2. La Jornada, July 30, 2011, p. 2 The National Council of Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval) informed that between 2008 and 2010 food poverty, when family income is insufficient to purchase the basic food basket, increased 18.4% (20.2 million Mexicans) to 18.8% (21.2 million). At the same time, “capacity poverty”, which includes those who cannot attain adequate food, health and education although they use all their income, also increased, passing from 27.8 million to 30 million people.
3. Ibid.
4. La Jornada, Aug. 3, 2011, p. 24. Due to the sustained increase in its value, stock shares reached 6 trillion pesos, according to the National Banking and Stock Commission. 203,000 investors concentrate 45% of the GCP and have managed to recuperate losses of the 2009 crisis that hit the poor.
5. Imagen Agropecuaria, November 29, 2010. José Luis Calva, of the Institute for Economic Research of the UNAM estimates that the volume of food imports this year will reach $25 billion dollars. In a forum of the Center for Research on Sustainable Rural Development and Food Sovereignty of the Chamber of Deputies he noted that  the Mexican countryside can produce more than enough food because it has the people, the land and the climatic conditions necessary, but it must change the economic model and generate rural stimulus programs.

Edited and translated by Laura Carlsen. Spanish at