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Achieving Mexico’s Maize Potential

Antonio Turrent Fernández, Timothy A. Wise, and Elise Garvey GDAE Working Paper 12-03
October 2012
Download the working paper
Published in Spanish by the Woodrow Wilson Center

Rising agricultural prices, combined with growing import dependence, have driven Mexico’s food import bill over $20 billion per year and increased its agricultural trade deficit. The current drought in the United States is making this situation worse, with maize prices setting new record highs. Once self-sufficient, Mexico now runs an annual production deficit of roughly 10 million tons and an import bill for maize of more than $2.5 billion/year. Mexico imports one-third of its maize, overwhelmingly from the United States, but three million producers grow most of the country’s maize, including nearly all that used for tortillas and other products for direct human consumption.

Cover of Achieving Mexico's Maize Potential in SpanishMost of the country’s small to medium-scale maize farmers are operating at less than 50% of potential. Yield gaps – the difference between current yields and attainable yields using available technology – are estimated at 43% on rain-fed land, compared to just 10% on the country’s larger irrigated farms.

To what extent could Mexico close this yield gap, using proven technologies widely employed in the country, to regain its lost self-sufficiency in maize? Based on a close examination of productivity gains and potential in Mexico’s diverse maize-producing sectors – irrigated and rain-fed, industrial scale and small scale, using hybrid seeds and native varieties – authors Antonio Turrent, Timothy A. Wise, and Elise Garvey find that Mexico has the potential to regain self-sufficiency in maize relatively quickly based on existing technologies and without relying on controversial transgenic maize varieties. Specifically:

  • Evidence suggests that within 10-15 years Mexico could increase annual production on current lands from 23 to 33 million tons, meeting the current deficit of 10 million tons.
  • Irrigation and infrastructure projects in the southern part of the country could add another 24 million mt/year. This would be more than enough to meet Mexico’s growing demand for maize, estimated to reach 39 million mt/year by 2025.
  • Such investments in new water resources, combined with public investments in more efficient water-use in irrigation systems in the semi-arid northern parts of Mexico, are urgently needed as climate change threatens to make water more scarce, undermining agricultural production.
  • Mexico’s current push to expand the use of transgenic maize is unnecessary and ill-considered. Its yield potential is limited, particularly for smaller scale producers, and its risks are high for a country with Mexico’s rich diversity of native maize varieties.
  • Mexico’s highly touted MasAgro Program, with its focus on smallholders and resource conservation, has laudable goals, but the program has too small a budget and focuses on strategies – improved seeds and “no till” practices – that are poorly suited to small-scale farms and marginal lands.
  • A pilot program in farmer-led extension services has proven the most promising, raising yields 55-70% in a project carried out in several states by a farmer organization. The project promoted precision application of inputs on both high-quality and marginal lands, improving conservation without relying on new hybrids nor transgenic seeds.
  • Such programs build on Mexico’s rich maize diversity, an asset that will become increasingly valuable as climate change challenges existing growing conditions.

Such findings are consistent with the prevailing international consensus around the “sustainable intensification” of small-scale production. Public investment should go where the yield gaps are the greatest, among small-to-medium-scale farmers. This is also where private investment is scarce and where market failures are prevalent.

Mexico’s transition to a new government in 2012 offers an opportunity to address the country’s maize import dependence. High international prices provide a strong incentive. The import savings are substantial and the market is providing strong incentives for farmers to adopt productivity-enhancing improvements. Ambition is needed, backed by public investment.

Download “Achieving Mexico’s Maize Potential
(also available in Spanish from the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute)
Download the Executive Summary

Further Analysis:

Growing Out of the Food Crisis: Mexican Smallholders Key to Food Sovereignty, by Timothy A. Wise,GDAE Globalization Commentary, from Triple Crisis Blog, October 10, 2012 

Media Coverage:
Soberanía alimentaria vs desarrollo económico de México, Juan Danell, Imagen Agropecuaria, April 6, 2013
Peña Nieto, ¿Y Monsanto* no es un monopolio?: ANEC, Info Rural, March 18, 2013
Mexico Could Say Goodbye to Imported Maize, Emilio Godoy, InterPress Service News Agency, October 24, 2012
Una solución para el maíz, Manuel Gomez, Cronica, October 14, 2012
Exigen apoyo para pequenos productores de maiz, Matilde Perez, La Jornada, October 10, 2012
Es momento clave de cambiar la política de Estado hacia el sector agrícola social en México: Wise Guillermo Pimentel Balderas, InfoRural October 10, 2012
Desarrollo sustentable y produccion de maiz en Mexico, Alejandro Nadal, La Jornada, October10, 2012
Pequeños agricultores pueden contribuir a reducir importaciones de granos, Ernesto Perea , Imagen Agropecuaria, October 9, 2012

See GDAE’s other work on Revaluing Smallholder Agriculture, including:

"Policy Space for Mexican Maize: Protecting Agro-biodiversity by Promoting Rural Livelihoods," by Timothy A. Wise, GDAE Working Paper No. 07-01, February, 2007. (Also available in Spanish.)

Agricultural Dumping Under NAFTA: Estimating the Costs of U.S. Agricultural Policies to Mexican Producers by Timothy A. Wise, GDAE Working Paper No. 09-08, December 2009.

"The Environmental Costs of Agricultural Trade Liberalization: Mexico-U.S. Maize Trade Under NAFTA," Alejandro Nadal and Timothy A. Wise. Working Group Discussion Paper DP04, June 2004.


See GDAE’s other work on Mexican Agriculture under NAFTA
See GDAE’s work on Revaluing Smallholder Agriculture
See GDAE’s work on the Global Food Crisis

The Global Development and Environment Institute’s Globalization and Sustainable Development Program examines the economic, social and environmental impacts of economic integration in developing countries, with a particular emphasis on the WTO and NAFTA's lessons for trade and development policy. The goal of the program is to identify policies and international agreements that foster sustainable development.

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