Hitting the Books: How crop diversity became a symbol of Mexican national sovereignty

A look at Mexico's fight to protect of landrace varieties and traditional agricultural methods.

RODRIGO ARANGUA via Getty Images

Beginning in the 1940s, Mexico's Green Revolution saw the country's agriculture industrialized on a national scale, helping propel a massive, decades-long economic boom in what has become known as the Mexican Miracle. Though the modernization of Mexico's food production helped spur unparalleled market growth, these changes also opened the industry's doors to powerful transnational seed companies, eroding national control over the genetic diversity of its domestic crops and endangering the livelihoods of Mexico's poorest farmers.

In the excerpt below from her new book Endangered Maize: Industrial Agriculture and the Crisis of Extinction, author and Peter Lipton Lecturer in History of Modern Science and Technology at Cambridge University, Helen Anne Curry, examines the country's efforts to maintain its cultural and genetic independence in the face of globalized agribusiness.

Endangered Maize
UC Press

Excerpted from Endangered Maize: Industrial Agriculture and the Crisis of Extinction by Helen Anne Curry. Published by University of California Press. Copyright © 2021 by Helen Anne Curry. All rights reserved.

Amid the clatter and hum generated by several hundred delegates and observers to the 1981 Conference of FAO, a member of the Mexican delegation took the floor. Participants from 145 member nations had already reviewed the state of global agricultural production, assessed and commended ongoing FAO programs, agreed on budget appropriations, and wrestled over the wording of numerous conference resolutions. The Mexican representative opened discussion on yet another draft resolution, this one proposing “The Establishment of an International Plant Germplasm Bank.” Two interlocked elements lie at the resolution’s heart: a collection of duplicate samples of all the world’s major seed collections under the control of the United Nations and a legally binding international agreement that recognized “plant genetic resources” as the “patrimony of humanity.” Together, the bank and agreement would ensure the “availability, utilization and non-discriminatory benefit to all nations” of plant varieties in storage and in cultivation across the globe.

Today, international treaties are integral to the conservation and use of crop genetic diversity. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity aims to ensure the sustainable and just use of the world’s biodiversity, which includes plant genetic resources. Meanwhile, the 2001 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, also called the Seed Treaty, establishes protocols specific to crop diversity. Although it draws much of its power from the Convention on Biological Diversity, the roots of the Seed Treaty reach further back, to the 1981 resolution of the Mexican delegation and beyond.

Mexico’s resolution, like today’s Seed Treaty, offered conservation as a principal motivation. It told a story of farmers’ varieties displaced by breeders’ products, the attrition of genetic diversity, and the looming “extinction of material of incalculable value.” Earlier calls for conservation had sketched the same picture. Yet those who prepared and promoted the Mexican proposal mobilized this narrative to different ends. They may well have wanted to protect crop diversity. Far more important, however, was the guarantee of access to this diversity, once conserved. They insisted that a seed bank governed by the United Nations and an international treaty were needed to prevent the “monopolization” of plant genetic materials. This monopolization came in the form of control by national governments, the ultimate decision makers for most existing seed banks. It also resulted from possession by transnational corporations. By exercising intellectual property protections in crop varieties, seed companies could take ownership of these varieties, even if they were derived from seeds sourced abroad. In other words, the survival of a seed sample in a base collection, or its duplicate, did not mean this sample was available to breeders, let alone farmers, in its own place of origin. Binding international agreements were necessary to ensure access.

Mexico’s intervention at the 1981 FAO Conference was just one volley in what would later be called the seed wars, a decades-long conflict over the granting of property rights in plant varieties and the physical control of seed banks. Allusions to endangered crop diversity have been mostly rhetorical flourishes in this debate, deployed in defense of other things considered threatened by agricultural change—namely, peoples and governments across Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the later twentieth century. Seed treaties were meant to protect not seeds, but sovereignty.

Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, in the midst of this struggle over seeds, consensus fractured about the loss of crop diversity—or, more specifically, about the meaning of this loss. When experts had gathered at FAO in the 1960s to discuss genetic erosion, most saw this as an inevitable consequence of a beneficial transition. Wherever farmers opted for breeders’ lines over their own seeds, the value of these so-called improved lines was confirmed, and agricultural productivity inched forward. In the 1970s genetic erosion featured centrally in a very different narrative. It was offered as evidence of the misguided ideas and practices driving agricultural development, especially the Green Revolution, and of the dangers posed by powerful transnational seed companies. Corporate greed emerged as a new driver of crop diversity loss. The willingness of wealthy countries to sustain this greed through friendly regulations meant both were complicit in undermining the capacities of developing countries to feed themselves. The extinction of farmers’ varieties and landraces was no longer an accepted byproduct of agricultural modernization. It was an argument against this development.

This shift pitted scientists committed to saving crop diversity against activists ostensibly interested in the same thing. It brought competing visions of what agriculture could and should be head to head. Invocations of the imminent loss of crop diversity, the one element everyone seemed able to agree on, reached a fever pitch during the seed wars. This rhetorical barrage often obscured on-the-ground realities. While FAO delegates, government officials, NGO activists, and prominent scientists waged a war of words in meeting rooms and magazines, plant breeders and agronomists tended experimental plots, tested genetic combinations, and presented farmers with varieties they hoped would be improvements. In 1970s Mexico some of these researchers were newly resolved to use Mexican seeds and methods to address the needs of the country’s poorest farmers. Keeping these individuals, their methods, and their corn collections in view grounds the seed wars in actual seeds. If the Mexican delegation’s invocation of crop diversity at FAO in 1981 was a rhetorical flourish in a bid to defend national sovereignty, the concurrent use of crop diversity by some Mexican breeders was a practical strategy for getting Mexican agriculture out from under the thumb of the United States and transnational agribusinesses. On the ground, seeds were not ornaments in oratory but the very stuff of sovereignty.

Inroads for Agribusiness

While scientists in Mexico searched for novel solutions to the country’s rural crises, critical assessments of agricultural aid bolstered the case for these alternatives. By the mid-1970s studies by economists, sociologists, and other development experts indicated that the much-vaunted Green Revolution had done more harm than help, thanks especially to the input- and capital-intensive model of farming it espoused.

The first critiques of the Green Revolution followed close on the heels of its initial celebration. In 1973 the Oxford economist Keith Griffin joined a growing chorus when he cataloged the harms introduced with “high-yielding varieties,” a phrase used to describe types bred to flourish with synthetic fertilizers. Their introduction had neither increased income per capita nor solved the problems of hunger and malnutrition, according to Griffin. They had produced effects, however: “The new technology... has accelerated the development of a market oriented, capitalist agriculture. It has hastened the demise of subsistence oriented, peasant farming... It has increased the power of landowners, especially the larger ones, and this in turn has been associated with a greater polarization of classes and intensified conflict.” In 1973 Griffin thought that the ultimate outcome depended on how governments responded to these changes. Five years later he had come to a final determination. “The story of the green revolution is a story of a revolution that failed,” he declared.

Griffin was a researcher on the project “Social and Economic Implications of the Large-Scale Introduction of High-Yielding Varieties of Foodgrain.” Carried out under the auspices of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, this project enlisted social scientists to document the uptake of new agricultural technologies — chiefly new crop varieties — and their social and economic effects across Asia and North Africa. Mexico was also included among the project’s case studies, since organizers pinpointed it as the historical site of the “first experiments in high-yielding seeds for modernizing nations.” An attempt to synthesize a single account from the case studies in the 1970s highlighted the problems arising from the integration of farmers into national and international markets. New varieties, chemical fertilizers, and mechanical equipment demanded that cultivators "become businessmen competent in market operations and small-scale financing and receptive to science-generated information." This was thought to be in marked contrast to their having once been "'artisan’ cultivators' who drew on 'tradition and locally valid practices'" to sustain their families. The fact that only a minority of better-off farmers could make such a transition meant that development programs benefited a few at the expense of the many. Drawing on her case study of Mexico, project contributor Cynthia Hewitt de Alcántara extended this observation about market integration into a reflection on the flow of economic resources around, and out of, the country — from laborers to landowners, from farms to industries, from national programs to foreign businesses. The reconfiguration of agriculture as what she labeled a "capitalist enterprise" had not brought more money to the countryside but instead robbed peasants of what little they had.

This apparent contradiction in Mexico’s agricultural development invited scrutiny from many besides Hewitt. The preceding three decades had been characterized by steady economic growth, thanks to increased international trade during World War II, government policies that encouraged national industry, and investments in infrastructure and education. This period of the so-called Mexican Miracle had also seen a transition from food dependency — needing to import grain to feed the nation — to self-sufficiency. At this level of abstraction, Mexico’s prospects for sustaining adequate food and nutrition looked rosy. When sociologists and economists delved into specifics, however, the miracle revealed itself a mirage. Investments in agriculture had focused on supplying food to urban workers and developing new products for export. State food-aid programs, too, had been oriented to urban labor, with set prices that kept food affordable for consumers in the city but made its cultivation unprofitable for farmers in the countryside. While well-off cultivators in the north of the country benefited from state-funded irrigation programs and guaranteed prices, poor farmers working small plots without access to state grain purchasers found that they could not sustain their families by selling surplus corn. Hewitt estimated that in 1969–70, one-third of the Mexican population experienced calorie deficiency. A 1974 national survey came to similar conclusions, calculating that 18.4 million Mexicans, over a quarter of the population, suffered from malnutrition.

The persistence of poverty in Mexico, in spite of the country’s celebrated economic growth, could be traced to the model of development embraced by national leaders since the 1940s. Politicians and policy makers had assumed that subsistence farmers could be made irrelevant, with their surplus labor absorbed into the growing industrial economy. Yet industry had not acted the sponge, with the result that this “irrelevant” segment of the population had grown while continuing to be neglected by the state. The economist David Barkin linked faulty Mexican policies to a more fundamental problem of emulating the market capitalism of its northern neighbor. The apparently flourishing Mexican economy had invited the interest of foreign investors, in particular US corporations. Despite protectionist policies, these companies had moved in, and national industries had been sold off, leaving Mexicans vulnerable to the whims of private capital.

Agriculture offered a prime example of this pattern. By the 1970s US firms dominated across the sector, from farm machinery (John Deere, International Harvester) to chemicals (Monsanto, DuPont, American Cyanamid) to production and processing (United Brands, Corn Products) to animal feed (Ralston Purina). Observing this trend, another economist pinpointed Mexican agriculture as the place of origin of a “new, world-wide modernization strategy.” He traced a path from the interventions of the Rockefeller Foundation to the stimulus these gave to the importation of costly agricultural inputs to the management of Mexican farms by foreign firms. Foreign control and deepening ties to international markets affected food self-sufficiency. It made sense, from the perspective of increasing individual profits, for large and well-financed producers in Mexico to focus on the crops that would bring the best prices. These were more likely to be fruits and vegetables for US supermarkets or sorghum to feed cattle than corn or wheat to feed Mexican workers. Thanks to these patterns, it was possible to see much of Mexican agriculture as an extension of US agribusiness, operating chiefly “to exploit Mexican rural labor, Mexican land and water resources, and Mexican private and public capital for the principal benefit of US entrepreneurs.” The ultimate outcome of technical assistance to enhance agricultural production, ostensibly undertaken for the betterment of Mexican farmers and the Mexican economy, was the dominance of transnational companies in that very task, for their own aggrandizement. This portended ill for Mexico and especially for the poorest Mexicans.