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Mexico Tempted to Shift From Tortillas to Ethanol
By Daniela Pastrana

The door that had opened for using Mexican maize in ethanol production slammed shut with the increase in tortilla prices -- but it is a temporary move.

MEXICO CITY, Jan 17 (Tierramérica).- Farmers' protests and the rise in corn tortilla prices in late December put the temporary brakes on the Mexican Senate, which was preparing to lift the national ban on utilizing maize to make fuel alcohol, or ethanol.

The policy shift is included in the bio-energy bill that former senator Mario López Valdez had pushed for two years. He is now governor of the northwestern state of Sinaloa. The bill was approved in committee by all political parties and presented to the Senate on Dec. 9.

The non-governmental campaign "Sin Maíz No Hay País" (roughly, "without maize, there is no Mexico") issued an alert against the legislation, which ultimately was put on hold, while in the last days of 2010 the price of the corn tortilla -- a staple in the Mexican diet -- shot up 50 percent.

Stopping the legislative effort were the senators of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is intent on recovering the presidency in 2012, held by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) for the last two terms.

"The problem remains, though dormant, because there are many interests of (ethanol-producing) companies in the United States, Colombia and Brazil," Víctor Suárez, executive director of the National Association of Rural Commercialization Enterprises (ANEC), told Tierramérica.

According to the federal government, Mexico imports 10 million tons of yellow maize annually, using it for livestock feed. It meets 30 percent of the national demand at a cost of 3 billion dollars, according to Sin Maíz No Hay País.

The insufficient national maize production was one of the reasons for the 2008 authorization to cultivate genetically modified maize in Mexico, the cradle of this millennia-old grain.

The law bans the use of maize to make ethanol when there is a production deficit. The reform aims to replace the national ban with a regional approach, such that states with surplus maize, like Sinaloa -- where an ethanol plant is already operating, run on imported maize -- can shift it from the food market to the biofuel production market.

The argument in favor of the initiative is that the reform would benefit the small farmers in those regions, because it would allow them to sell their maize freely, without endangering Mexico's food security. Furthermore, the reasoning goes, it would reduce reliance on fossil fuels because ethanol -- utilized as a substitute for or complement to gasoline in automotive transport -- emits less climate-changing gases into the atmosphere.

The federal authorities would be entrusted with regulating maize-based ethanol in case of food emergencies, yield fluctuations or other phenomena that could lead to maize shortages or stockpiling, periodically reviewing the grain's supply.

"It's madness whose sole purpose is to enrich the big farmers," said Suárez. "We are in the middle of this foolishness, and with 20 percent of the Mexican population living in extreme poverty and with 45 percent of the food imported, we enter into this scheme of wanting to produce ethanol using a staple food," he said. "Furthermore, without subsidies, ethanol is not economically profitable."

According to the government's National Council for Social Development Policy Evaluation, in the first four years of President Felipe Calderón's administration, begun in 2006, the proportion of people who were unable to meet their basic food needs rose from 14.4 percent to 18.2 percent.

Meanwhile, the Senate halted a reform effort pushed by civil society groups to include the "right to food" in the Constitution.

But with the argument of guaranteeing food security, in March 2009 the government authorized experimental crops of genetically modified maize in four northern Mexican states, despite what civil society groups and other critics say is a lack of conclusive evidence that these lab-created varieties are safe for human health and the environment.

"The central theme is the process of genetic modification," said Javier Cruz Mena, a researcher with the Autonomous National University of Mexico's council for the dissemination of science. "The cell is bombarded with microparticulates of the gene to be introduced, and there is no guarantee into which part of the cell they will fall," he told Tierramérica.

Maize is not only the main food in the Mexican diet, it is also a basic cultural element of the native peoples. According to Maya legend, the gods created humans from maize, and the plant is still used in many native religious rituals.

But now its price depends on the international markets, where the grain exchanges are increasingly influenced by speculative purchases and investments, which go beyond food supply and demand.

In addition are external factors, like the U.S. demand for maize to make ethanol, which absorbs 37 percent of U.S. maize production; the closing of Russian wheat exports in August, due to the heat wave that ruined harvests; and the current flooding in Australia.

The price of the tortilla, which is made with white maize, rose as much as 50 percent in some Mexican states, from nine Mexican pesos (74 cents on the dollar) per kilogram, to between 12 and 15 pesos (99 cents to 1.2 dollars).

The authorities announced fines for corn flour millers and, given the ensuing scandal, the Mexican Senate shelved the biofuels reform law.

"The government says that we can't increase tortilla prices and that we are abusing the system, but then they increase maize and gasoline prices and nobody can say anything," complained Mexico City mill owner Juan Martínez to Tierramérica.

Maize farming leader Suárez says that his country is capable of producing what it needs to feed its more than 112 million people. But the countryside was "abandoned" in a decision to hand over agricultural output to the United States in the context of free trade agreements, under a "false principle" of comparative benefits.

The average yield is 3.3 tons of maize per hectare, but most Mexican farmers get less than one ton per hectare -- figures far below U.S. productivity.

"There is no investment or research in farming, and that is a political decision dating back 25 years. We need technology; not genetic modification, but rather technology that allows us to protect the environment and biodiversity, based on scientific research," said Suárez.


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