The Struggle For Maize

 

Adding to the fast-growing literature on understanding the
multidimensional nature of commodities and crops is this welcome
contribution by Dalhousie University anthropologist Elizabeth
Fitting. _The Struggle for Maize_ is a deeply researched work, both
on broad transnational and local levels, that seeks to show « a few of
the ways that corn–as both a food and a crop–is fraught with
multiple layers of meaning, and how it has been portrayed by state
policy, bureaucrats, activists, academics, and local actors » (p.
232). More specifically, Fitting focuses on the three main elements
of central Mexican production: water, labor, and corn itself, and how
those work together, or have been affected by, the « neoliberal corn
regime » (p. 4). Thus, _The Struggle for Maize_ reveals and studies
the tension between small-scale agricultural producers, and their
uncertainties in trying to survive, and the larger globalized corn
markets and commodities regimes that have intensified pressures to
change under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and
other neoliberal economic policies. A huge dimension of those changes
has been the introduction from abroad of genetically modified (GMO)
maize varieties that have not only polluted the gene pool in the very
place where corn developed centuries ago, but that have also wreaked
havoc with local production and consumption patterns in Mexico.
Fitting’s goal, then, for such a project as this was not only to
provide the background and larger story to this whole scenario, but
also to provide a case study of how the changes have affected one
local area in south central Mexico, the Tehuecán Valley in the state
of Puebla, and specifically the village of San José Miahuatlán
there.

Anthropologists, sociologists, and geographers will perhaps find this
case study more useful than historians and political scientists, who
will value more from the broader analyses of the neoliberal changes
associated with maize in Mexico. The author lived in San José
Miahuatlán for a significant period of time, conducting interviews
and placing the neoliberal changes in a very local perspective.
Fitting’s style is also more reflective of anthropologists’ and
sociologists’: social science formatting with parenthetical
citations, and heavy use of jargony buzz terms (this reviewer noticed
an almost endless string of terms like « market liberalization, »
« agricultural efficiency, » « politics of food, » « food regimes, » and
« food sovereignty »–not that any of those are not important for
readers to be aware of, they are; they were just overused in the
narrative). Some of the chapters were also too long and repetitive,
causing one to wonder about the editorial skills at Duke University
Press.

These style points, while unfortunately making the book less readable
and marketable to a wider audience than it could have been, however,
should not distract too heavily from its important content and
messages. There is exceptionally useful data and analysis here on the
national and local impact of GMO corn, there are chapters about how
neoliberal economic policies have accelerated Mexican immigration to
the United States (something that policymakers who support NAFTA but
then complain about the problem of « illegal » aliens and vote for
things like border walls should be far more aware of!), and analysis
of agricultural modernization and its impacts on rural communities.
Along the way, Fitting touches on the role of _maquiladora_
industries in Mexico and how they have been an option for rural women
seeking work in areas negatively impacted by the force of imported
(often GMO) corn that has replaced local agriculture. She briefly,
but importantly, discusses some of the environmental results of corn
monoculture (reduction of intercropping, dependence on chemicals,
salinization from increased irrigation, etc.). And she frames all of
this material with an analysis of globalization, the transnational
nature of « the neoliberal corn regime. »

All of this is important for scholars of Mexican agriculture,
environment, economics, and society, as well as for those interested
in the transnational connections and impacts of neoliberalism.
Fitting’s conclusions from her research are well told in the final
chapter, and she does not back away from enumerating the harms of
NAFTA that she has observed and documented. To her credit, she takes
an important stand based on what the book shows are the social and
agricultural ills of GMO corn imports into Mexico. But this scenario
does not cast the _campesinos_ of the Tehuecán Valley as total
victims in a larger world plot nor does it glorify an « Indian way »
versus contemporary times. Fitting eschews « peasant
essentialism »–romanticizing peasants’ and indigenous peoples’
« cultural alterity, or overemphasizing the similarity of experiences
across time and space » (pp. 233-234). Instead, _The Struggle for
Maize_ deals with the resilience of corn as a crop and commodity
_and_ as a cultural practice, despite the challenges presented by a
globalized economy that has introduced GMO corn varieties into
Mexico. Depending on one’s point of view, GMO may have accrued some
economic benefits here and there in the country (but certainly not in
San José Miahuatlán), but the agricultural, social, and
environmental harms it has presented, Fitting argues, outweigh those
benefits. And her book is successful in showing that, and thus is an
important contribution to that ongoing debate.

Citation: Sterling Evans. Review of Fitting, Elizabeth M., _The
Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the
Mexican Countryside_. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. August, 2011.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=32442


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