Importing Corn, Exporting Labor:
The Neoliberal Corn Regime, GMOs,
and the Erosion of Mexican Biodiversity
Some of the earliest maize cobs on record have been found by archaeologists in the Tehuacán Valley of southeastern Puebla (MacNeish 1972), the same region where Mexican government tests recently confirmed the presence of genetically modified (GM) corn among traditional cornfields (INE-CONABIO 2002). Imported from the United States to serve as animal feed, as grain for tortillas, or for industrial processing, GM corn made its way to regional markets in Mexico's “cradle of corn,” where small-scale Mexican cultivators unknowingly purchased and then planted the grain. This finding helped mobilize Mexican and transnational activist networks and amplify an international debate about the extent to which corn imports from the United States pose a threat to maize biodiversity in the crop's center of origin, domestication, and biological diversity. Beyond the environmental risks of gene flow, however, these imports raise the question as to whether the expansion of neoliberal globalism,1 particularly free trade agreements coupled with economic restructuring in the global south, grants an unfair advantage to transnational corporations and large-scale northern farmers. The latter often enjoy hefty government subsidies for the production of basic grains (Bartra 2004).
In this chapter, I want to propose, as some activists and academics in the recent maize debates have, that it is not simply the lack of sufficient regulation on transgenic corn imports that poses a risk to in situ conservation of maize landraces, the gene reservoir upon which the development of future corn varieties depends. Rather, the increasing hardships and out-migration of small-scale corn cultivators who are struggling to adapt to economic crisis and neoliberal reforms also jeopardize in situ maize biodiversity. I focus here on the social aspect of biodiversity, defined as a dynamic process in which maize landraces are maintained through