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Trade Deal With the United States Puts Many Mexican Farmers at Risk

CORN AND FREE TRADE IN NORTH AMERICA

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FROM the chile-dusted cobs sold on Mexico City street corners to the hand-made tortillas in the most remote villages, there is no other food more important in Mexico than corn.

It is the nation's biggest agricultural product. But maize is more than a key crop. It has profound historical and religious roots in Mexican society. Pre-Hispanic legends even portray man as born from corn. Today, the gold kernel continues as both a dietary staple of Mexican peasants and a politically sacred icon.

Indeed, for the first time in two decades, thanks mostly to favorable weather, Mexico has grown enough corn - 14.6 million tons - to feed it's populace. But that may change rapidly in the next few years.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), if passed, would effectively toss aside centuries of political and cultural sensibilities and dramatically alter the face of Mexico's corn-producing countryside.

Under NAFTA, the huge price supports the Mexican government pays would shrink to zero over 15 years. At present, Mexican corn costs $240 a ton on the domestic market, compared with at most $110 for Iowa corn picked up at the border.

At the same time, Mexico would gradually increase it's import quota, which was set at 2.5 million tons for the US in the first year NAFTA takes effect.

Economists predict a boom in US corn exports to Mexico, making it an even larger market for US farmers. Currently, the US growers have a 2.5 to 1 production-cost advantage over Mexican growers, according to Jose Luis Calva, economics professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and author of the book, "The Probable Effects of a Free Trade Agreement on the Mexican Countryside."

Mr. Calva figures the NAFTA will have a "devastating effect" on Mexico's 2.7 million corn producers. "This is going to provoke a tremendous rural migration of 15 million people, counting the farmers' families," he says.

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