“Rich Land, Poor People”

Exports vs. Food Security in Mexico

By Oakley Biesanz, Octavio Madigan Ruiz, Amy Sanders, and Meredith Sommers

Global trade is bringing U.S. and Canadian consumers a year-round supply of fresh flowers; fresh and processed fruits such as tomatoes, melons, pineapples, strawberries, and mangos; and fresh vegetables such as artichokes, cucumbers, cabbage, cauliflower, green beans, peppers, broccoli, snow peas, and asparagus. All these are flown in daily from Mexico. In addition, there are the traditional exports that feed Mexico’s northern neighbors, such as sugar, coffee, bananas and cattle. During winter and spring, more than half the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States come from Mexico.

The growth of these exports has bittersweet outcomes, depending on one’s perspective. These products have proven very profitable for foreign investors, transnational food corporations, and many large-scale Mexican farmers. These exports both satisfy the appetites of North American consumers and create jobs in Mexico. On the other hand, these exports have serious economic, personal, and environmental effects, and cause grave problems for small-scale farmers, or campesinos.
Mexico’s Dual Agricultural Structure

Mexico has two agricultural systems, operating parallel to each other. Producing foods as cash crops for export is the primary goal of large-scale farmers. Although only about 15% of Mexico’s land is arable, or suitable for cultivation, 88% of the arable land is used for cultivation of export crops and for grazing cattle. What large-scale farmers produce is determined by what brings the highest prices in international markets. Since the 1970s, most large-scale farmers have been producing the non-traditional crops listed above. They sell to transnational corporations that process or directly transport the products to warehouses and eventually to grocers.

Among those who benefit from the large-scale agricultural system are transnational corporations such as Del Monte, Green Giant, Heinz, United Brands, Castle and Cooke, PepsiCo, Ralston Purina, Campbell’s, General Foods, Beatrice Foods, Gerber, Kellogg, Kraft and Nestle. Rarely do these corporations own land. Instead, they contract with large-scale farmers. The corporations have capital to invest in technology, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, transport systems, and marketing.

The other agriculture system involves about 60% of Mexico’s farmers who have access to the remaining 12% of arable land. This includes individual small-scale farms that produce for local markets, and farms known as ejidos. Ejidos are a system of community-owned lands which, in some cases, have been owned “in trust” by communities for centuries. Ejido lands were protected from sale as a result of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. However, a significant amount of ejido land passed into private hands during the 1980s and 1990s due to extreme credit pressures and changes to the Mexican Constitution. These constitutional changes allow, for the first time since the Revolution, the sale of ejido land to private owners. The changes were a crucial concession by Mexico to ensure the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Ejido lands rarely have been more than subsistence farms, where corn and beans are grown for the consumption of campesinos and their families. They have, however, provided a way for poor families to at least provide basic grains for themselves. With the ongoing loss of ejidos to private producers and the general inability of campesinos to gain access to other arable land, there is a growing problem of malnutrition in Mexico. The World Bank estimates that half of all rural Mexican children are malnourished.

Furthermore, small-scale farmers have considerable difficulties competing with large-scale farms because they lack access to money for seeds, water, transportation and information required for success in agribusiness. They tend to be unfamiliar with non-traditional crops and production technology. Gaining entry into the export market is very difficult for small farmers, if that is what they choose to do.
A Mexican Campesino

To give a better idea of the challenges small farmers face, here is the story of one man named Emetario Pantaleón:

The old man works the earth most days before the sun pulls itself over the eastern ridges. With his horse grazing on the grassy borders of his field, he stoops over the black dirt, tilling the soil, removing weeds, and harvesting fresh vegetables and herbs. Those, in addition to dried beans and corn made into tortillas, provide breakfast, lunch, and supper for him and the other families who share this land, 365 days of the year.

He has spent most of his 97 years here, his world defined by the dry hills that ring this little valley, his soul anchored to this piece of ground.

His name is Emetario Pantaleón, and he is one of the few remaining members of the guerrilla army led by Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution. It was a war for the land, fought by the many who had nothing against the few who held almost all of it. It was a peasant’s struggle, as bloody as any in the world.

“The days I come here I am content,” Emetario says, his voice rising and his body shimmering with enthusiasm. “I need to feel the earth in my hands.”

But now, just three generations after the revolt that won them their land, many of Mexico’s ejido farmers face losing it once again. Emetario Pantaleón pulls off his sandals and lifts his face to the sun, “It is sad that the people leave the farms. It is the earth that sustains us,” the old rebel says. “It is the earth that sets the mind free and cures the body of life’s indignities. It is the earth that endures. This land. This very dirt. This life. This is what matters. These lands are not for sale.”


Raising cash crops for export has a great cost on the health of the Mexican people and environment of Mexico. The production of export foods is characterized by the heavy use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Although pesticides can bring short-term benefits in controlling insects, heavy pesticide use has several adverse effects. When pesticides are applied too heavily or too close to harvest time, residues accumulate in foods at levels that often exceed health standards for consumers. Pesticide residues can also pollute the environment, particularly water sources, soils, and vegetation. There are few enforced laws concerning the dumping of wastes and emission of pesticides in Mexico.

Herbicides and pesticides also put farm workers’ health at risk. Increasing numbers of people are being exposed and harmed. It is not uncommon for airplanes to spray fields while people work below, or for farm workers to use toxic products without being provided protection for their skin or lungs. Acute poisonings and chronic illness have become common among farm workers and their families.


The growth of agricultural exports and the resultant change in land use has affected the food supply available for local consumption in Mexico. Land devoted to basic food crops – corn, wheat, beans and rice – fell 25% between 1960 and 1970 and has continued to decline since. While Mexico is the second largest supplier of cattle to the United States, beef consumption in Mexico has decreased by 50%. Meanwhile, Mexico imports 25% of its corn and wheat.

“This shift can hinder food security,” says Isabel Cruz, who heads a national association of rural credit unions in Mexico. “The government policy will drive out the small producers. Where will they go? The government doesn’t concern itself with that.”

The two different agricultural sectors have very different concepts of food security. One argument, expressed by small-scale farmer organizations, is to structure agricultural policy to make Mexico self-sufficient in basic food production: Invest in infrastructure that helps small-scale farms; provide loans and reduce the interest rate which hovered between 50% and 90% in the mid-’90s; and raise, or at least enforce, the minimum wage of $3.90 per day for farm workers.

A very different approach to food security is advocated by decision makers who believe that crop production should be based on a country’s “comparative advantage.” Comparative advantage means that a country can produce a good or service at a lower cost than another country. According to this way of thinking, countries should specialize and take advantage of the quantity and quality of resources they have.

In Mexico, the larger agricultural producers support the policy of increasing exports. Proponents argue that the foreign exchange earned through sale of crops should be used to purchase food that is grown more cheaply in the United States, Canada, or elsewhere. The Mexican agriculture ministry suggests growing fruits and vegetables to export to the United States, Canada, and other countries. Since there is a limited amount of irrigated land in Mexico, these policy makers believe that priority should be given to crops that can be produced only with a constant supply of water – namely fruits and vegetables. The ministry encourages using Mexico’s “comparative advantages” such as cheap labor, irrigated land, and warm climate. The ministry agrees with the NAFTA guidelines to end price supports and eliminate tariffs and trade barriers such as import licenses.


The first to feel the impact of the export-oriented policies have been the campesino families, the 25 million Mexicans who depend on corn, beans, and other grains for their sustenance. In addition, millions of urban poor in Mexico are hungry because agricultural production is not designed to meet the nutritional needs of the majority of people.

Like people in both rich and poor nations, thousands of Mexicans have been leaving the countryside for years. Most of the peasants have moved to Mexico’s cities, where they join the millions of others already living in the shanty towns on the fringe of urban areas. In 1995, 72% of Mexico’s population lived in cities. Many also head for the United States to work as migrant laborers.

This article is excerpted from Octavio Madigan Ruiz, Amy Sanders, and Meredith Sommers, [eds.] Many Faces of Mexico. Minneapolis, MN: Resource Center of the Americas, pp. 264-267. Used by permission.

Interview with Emetario Pantaleón, “The Bitter Harvest,” The Houston Chronicle, December 12, 1994.

Last Updated Spring 2002