Sunday, April 1, 2007

Your Car and the Price of Tortillas

Why are Mexicans protesting the price of tortillas?

And what does that have to do with the way we drive our cars?

It's all about corn.

The first evidence of Native Americans eating corn dates back about 5,000 years. Seems they liked popcorn, from the leavings we've found around their campfires.

It was an unusual relationship, man and corn, but beneficial to both. Corn provided a major source of protein, while man propagated the corn. In its earliest form, corn probably looked more like a grass. Man raised it to get bigger. Modern corn cannot reproduce by itself. It relies on man to spread the seed.

Some cultures still hold to the old uses of corn: grinding it, turning it into meal, baking it into simple breads such as tortillas. But in America, corn has become a commodity, something to trade in large quantities, something to grow on huge, industrial farms, something to tinker with in the food laboratory.

Ironically, the white man, who did so much to rub out the original Americans and their culture, has embraced the native grain in evry possible way. We have become a nation of corn. Through our tax dollars, we subisdize the growing of corn, meaning our government guarantees a certain price for the grain and sends farmers a check when the marketplace can't meet that price. Corn helps feed the nation, but not without costs: The corn industry we subsidize has helped put millions of small, diverse family farms out of business. The chemical fertilizers and pesticides that support our industrial corn culture help destroy the soil, deplete our aquifers, pollute our waterways.

In Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes the diet of corn that's fed to huge herds of beef cattle that are fattened in sprawling, factory-like lots before being sliced into steaks and stew meat. Cattle evolved as ruminants, meaning their normal diet is grass. Forcing them to eat corn contradicts their natural physiology. Problems result. But there's so much corn.

One of the early lessons I taught the elementary school kids in our "food appreciation" classes this year was to recognize corn in all its convoluted forms. I pushed two 6-foot-long tables together and covered them with different food products containing corn. Pancake syrup? Where's the corn in that? Why, it's high fructose corn syrup! Twizzlers? Yes again: more corn syrup. Chocolate sauce? Corn again. By the time I got to the end of the second table, the 5-year-olds were pumping their fists.

"Hot dogs? Hot dogs? There's no corn in hot dogs, is there?" I taunted.

"Yes! Yes!" they all shouted. "There's corn in that! There's corn in the hot dogs!"

Of course, they were right. There was corn in the hot dogs, too. There's corn in just about everything, including the packaging we buy our food in. In fact, the only thing in that panoply of products I had spread across 12 feet of tabletop that didn't contain corn was a chunk of concrete I'd found on my way into school.

It was only a matter of time before we started putting corn in our automobiles.

In Washington's wacky approach to things, corn in the form of ethanol has become the darling of politicians suddenly scrambling to do something to stoke our autombile lifestyle. We are now the world's largest importer of oil. And despite what Exxon-Mobil would have you believe, the planet's supply of oil is not without limits. In fact, there are signs we are biginning to run short.

So, to keep our automobiles running, to support a culture of sprawl, fast-food joints, shopping malls, bumper-to-bumper commutes and ex-urban housing developments--what writer James Kunstler likes to call "the cheap oil fiesta"--we turn to ethanol as the latest technological fix. Ethanol plants (which, by the way, use fossil fuels to turn corn into something we can pour in our gas tanks) are springing up like crazy.

Like evrything else in our interconnected world, the move toward ethanol is not without consequences. Some people don't want to live next to an ethanol factory. But more importantly for most of us, the price of corn recently has doubled. The spike in corn prices may be good for Iowa farmers. But already chicken and beef suppliers are cutting back production. Less chicken and beef in grocery stores will lead to higher food prices.

Which brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to why I as a personal chef and food writer am concerned about ethanol. The question I pose is this: Are we as a nation prepared to choose between driving and eating?

The question might seem absurd. Citizens with money will always be able to drive and eat, right? But for some, the issue is not so trivial. And what we as a community should be thinking about is whether our automobile lifestyle is so important that it must be supported and sustained at all costs, at the expense of our first and most primary need, putting food in our mouths.

You think this is a joke? Well, in Mexico it most certainly is not a joke. The doubling of corn prices has already provoked a crisis.

In Mexico, corn is still a primary source of protein. If you've ever visited, and if you've ever strolled the neighborhood around your hotel early enough in the morning, you've seen the citizenry lined up outside the local tortilleria, waiting to purchase their daily ration of tortillas. Mexicans eat tortillas at almost every meal, just as they've been doing for centuries. Food culture in Mexico as we know it would be unthinkable without tortillas.

Only now, because the price of corn has doubled, because we are making fuel for automobiles out of the staple crop, some people can't afford their tortillas. In some places, the price of tortillas has tripled or even quadrupled in a matter of months. There have been rallies. There have been protests. The Mexican government is trying to impose caps on the price of tortillas, not always with success.

"When you talk about Mexico, when you talk about culture and societal roots, when you talk about the economy, you talk about the tortilla," Lorenzo Menjia, president of a tortilla makers trade group, was quoted as saying in a recent Washington Post article. "Everything revolves around the tortilla."

Mexico's new president, Felipe Calderon, is caught in a dilemma: support the people's need for protein, or the free-trade dictates of his contry's participation in NAFTA?

According to Post correspondent Manuel Roig-Franzia, poor Mexicans derive more than 40 percent of their protein, as well as calcium and essential vitamins, from tortillas. "It is absolutely crucial for our population to keep eating tortillas," one nutritionist said.

Roig-Franzia goes on to report that "with a minimum wage of $4.60 a day, Mexican families with one wage earner have been faced in recent months with the choice of having to spend as much as a third of their income on tortillas--or eating less or switching to cheaper alternatives."

Just a passing problem, you say? We can always grow more corn, you say? Well, consider this: most of the planet's arable land is already under cultivation. Meanwhile, water is joining oil as a precious commodity. The world's population just keeps growing, creating more demand for both.

We who care about food should be concerned about the consequences of our lifestyle choices, about the threats posed by converging trends. Chefs, food writers, bloggers: We can't just sit back and eat. The price of corn is not just something to be haggled over by congressmen and lobbyists from Cargill. It is a matter of community concern. It should be part of our national dialogue.

Maybe--perish the thought!--it's even time to consider whether this automobile culture of ours is worth saving in its current form, whether there's an alternative that puts food and the welfare of people first.

Something to think about next time you're gassing up.


Anonymous said...

It seems odd to me that the price of 1 input that doesnt make up the entire cost of a tortilla doubling quadrupled the price of the tortilla. And that only mexican tortillas quadrupled. I haven't seen stories about the price of Guatemalan or American tortillas doubling as I would expect to if that was caused by world corn prices. Could this have something to do with monopolies, speculation, or limiting imports of certain kinds of corn into Mexico?

Ed Bruske said...

Mexico is a big country. Far be it from me to explain why tortillas would be more expensive in some areas than in others. But there is a growing amount of literature on this now, especially in the alternative press.

The trouble started in the 90s with implimentation of NAFTA, which exposed Mexico fully to the subsidized corn grown in the United States. The flood of cheap U.S. corn into Mexico as a result of NAFTA drove many Mexican corn growers out of business and the Mexican government has been encouraging its citizens to get into lines of business other than the lowly job of growing a subsistence crop. Hence, as the price of corn doubles, and as more and more corn is diverted into the producation of ethanol, the Mexican peasants find themselves short of corn and the price of their tortillas skyrocketing.

Believe me, I'm not making this up.

Ed Bruske said...

Here's another reference for those who'd like to explore this further: