In today’s Victual Reality column, I note that California’s organic farms are struggling with a labor shortage.
Farmers there claim that tighter security at the Mexican border is leaving them bereft of workers; in the nation’s organic fruit-and-vegetable basket, produce is rotting unpicked on the vine.
If in California there aren’t enough farm hands, in Mexico, there are too many. In an excellent recent San Francisco Chronicle story, Monica Campbell and Tyche Hendricks report that, “An estimated 1.5 million agricultural jobs have been lost since Nafta went into effect in 1994.” And the situation is expected to get worse as Nafta strips away what’s left of the Mexican government’s protection for its corn farmers by 2008.
Where do I begin to tease out the ironies at play here?
First, let’s look at this allegedly “free” trade treaty. Under it, the U.S. gets to drop some $4 billion per year propping up U.S. corn farmers, allowing them to sell for less than production costs … but Mexico can’t enact a tariff on the stuff?
It’s no wonder that crappy, genetically modified U.S. field corn is overrunning the birthplace of domesticated corn, the land of tortillas. According to the S.F. Chronicle story:
American corn exports to Mexico — now one-fifth of the corn consumed there — have more than tripled in NAFTA’s first 10 years, and the USDA predicts they will double again in the coming decade.
(Emphasis bitterly added.)
Over the same period, the flavor of tortillas at taquerias and tortillarias has declined perceptibly, I’m sorry to report.
Further, it must be added a “free trade” treaty that allows capital and goods to flow freely, but tightly restricts the movement of labor, is a farce. I’m told there are red-faced pundits who thunder and bellow on TV against the “invasion” from the south. Do they also claim to worship at the alter of free commerce? If so, they should be horse-whipped (metaphorically, of course). If capital must be free to zip across borders to seek its highest return, then so must labor.
So what sort of world is current U.S.-Mexico trade and immigration policy creating? U.S. vegetable farming, under pressure from a labor shortage caused by the tightly guarded border, declines; more and more of the veggies we consume here, organic and otherwise, come from Mexico.
Mexican corn farming, under pressure from cheap U.S. corn, withers. Small holders continue to be forced from the land. The S.F. Chronicle piece claims that Mexico has 2 million corn farmers, “two-thirds of whom subsist on 12 acres or fewer and 90 percent of whom lack irrigation.” Note that their competitors in the U.S. Midwest are highly consolidated and lavishly capitalized. It doesn’t seem far-fetched that 1 million or more Mexican corn farmers — and their families — will be knocked off the land over the next several years.
And what do we get, for all this misery? A food system on both sides of the border increasingly reliant on long-haul travel, and ever more homogenized, flavorless food.
Sounds pretty insane to me.