Mexico’s craddle of corn is threatened by climate change

In recent years, more frequent and longer droughts have forced Mexican farmers to give up corn and other cereals in favor of alternatives requiring less water

Mexico’s craddle of corn is threatened by climate change
75% of Mexico’s soil is already considered too dry to cultivate crops – Photo: Jorge Silva/REUTERS
English 14/03/2020 08:48 Reuters Mexico City Diego Ore, Frank Jack Daniel & Alistair Bell/REUTERS Actualizada 09:13

At least 9,000 years ago, humans began domesticating corn for the first time near Tehuacán, in the central Mexican state of Puebla, laying the foundation for permanent settlements in the Americas.

But in the past few years, more frequent and longer droughts have forced many farmers in the area to give up corn and other cereals in favor of alternatives requiring less water such as pistachio nuts or cactus.

Agricultural experts predict parts of Mexico will feel the effects of climate change more than many countries, not least because its location between two oceans and straddling the Tropic of Cancer expose it to weather volatility.

Recommended: Rescuing native maize

Sol Ortiz, director of the Agriculture Ministry’s climate change group, noted that 75% of Mexico’s soil is already considered too dry to cultivate crops. In regions such as Tehuacán, temperatures may rise more than the global average.

“We know there are areas where the increase is going to be greater. That will obviously affect rain patterns, and in turn, agriculture and food security,” Ortiz said.

The area under corn cultivation in Tehuacán decreased 18% to about 40,000 hectares between 2015 and last year, a Reuters calculation using statistics by the Agriculture Ministry shows, outstripping a nationwide decline.

In the five years before that, the area planted with corn had been slowly increasing in Tehuacán.

Nationally, the area under corn cultivation declined 4% from 2015 to 7.4 million hectares last year. While factors leading farmers to switch crops are complex, in Tehuacán, farmers and local officials describe fast-changing climate as a leading cause.

Recommended: Mexico City's best new bistro rescues native maize

Last year, Mexico’s rainy season was the driest since 2011, which in turn was one of the driest on record, numbers from the country’s National Water Agency showed.

Climate change is expected to cause substantial declines in yields of corn globally, especially in the tropics, a 2018 study published in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concluded.

There may be exceptions. The corn belt in the U.S. Midwest is so vast that one recent study concluded the expanses of lush fields were actually helping increase rainfall locally and also cut temperatures, thus allowing even more corn to be grown.

Under this model, intensive farming meant more moisture being released into the atmosphere from plants on a scale great enough to create more rainfall. The greater humidity also contributed to summers up to 1 degree Celsius cooler, the study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded.

In Tehuacán, however, conditions are fast changing for the worse. In a field where dried out plants have been lingering in the dust since the last drought, farmer Porfirio García, holding a stunted cob, was struggling to make sense of it all.

For thousands of years, corn has been a symbol of Mexican pride, a staple of local and national cuisine from tortillas to tamales and the backbone of civilizations that gave rise to modern Mexico. But climate change has jeopardized that.

García, who has 12 children, half of them working with him on the farm, recalls how one hectare in some years yielded as many as four tonnes of corn In the past five years, he said, with luck it yielded 700 kg.

Recommended: Mexican scientists create eco-friendly insecticide to save corn

“The corn harvest has shrunk because in the months of June, July, August, and September there was no rain,” said García, 59, who uses ancestral farming techniques to grow corn, beans, and pumpkin, an ancient system called a “milpa.”

“Our lives center on corn, so what do we do without it?”

Eusebio Olmedo, director of Rural Development, Agriculture and Livestock in Tehuacán, recalls that it began to get hotter at the turn of the millennium.

Having worked in the department for five years, Olmedo said the area used to be characterized by a “very pleasant, very benevolent” climate.

Last year was the warmest on record in the state of Puebla - where Tehuacán is located - with thermometers reaching an average maximum temperature of 26.8 Celsius. In 1985, the first year the available state records show, Puebla registered an average maximum temperature of 24.7 Celsius.

Recommended: How was corn domesticated?

A 2016 study commissioned by the Environment Ministry and backed by the U.N. Development Program concluded climate change in Mexico will mean less rain, lower yields for basic grains such as corn, beans, and wheat, as well as “unexpected effects on food security.”

“When rain patterns change, agriculture becomes risky,” Olmedo said.

Mexican corn farmers have suffered major shocks in the past - most notably the arrival of cheap imports from the United States under the NAFTA free trade agreement in the 1990s.

In the north of Mexico, where large cornfields are irrigated, climate change may initially have little impact, studies show.

But in the south, where the oldest corn strains on earth are grown using traditional methods without irrigation, the changing rain patterns and temperatures are already being felt.

Agricultural consulting group GCMA estimates Mexican corn production will continue to decline in 2020, and that corn imports mainly from the United States will reach a record 18 million tonnes.

Recommended: Indigenous Mexican corn threatened by U.S. biopiracy

Mexico is now the world’s second-largest corn importer thanks to a reliance on U.S. grain for animal feed. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador calls that “a contradiction” and has implemented programs to boost national production.

García, however, chose to diversify into other crops, planting 300 trees of pistachio, a desert plant that can withstand temperatures between -10 and 40 degrees Celsius.

Nearby farmer Natalio De Santiago also abandoned the corn that he, his father and his grandfather used to plant for other crops that require less water. Those include maguey, a raw ingredient for mezcal.

“I stopped sowing (corn) because the weather is changing,” said De Santiago, 56. “Now, I plant maguey because it needs less water.”

Wearing a cowboy hat to shield his face from the sun, he said he irrigates 400 maguey plants every month with a liter of water each. When he planted corn, he said, his crops needed four months of rain.

Others in the area gave up agriculture altogether and sold land to real estate developers.

In an attempt to stop this trend, local authorities developed a bank of native corn seeds more resistant to pests and that need less water.

Recommended: Mexican scientists develop drought-resistant maize

“We have to adapt to climate change, and these are the best varieties to recover food self-sufficiency,” Olmedo said of the seeds.

Other government measures meant to help farmers adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change include agricultural insurance, alternative crops, and campaigns to reduce agricultural burning.

“It’s very difficult to reverse the tendency to increase CO2 in the atmosphere,” said Ortiz. “That’s why we’re prioritizing adaptation.”

Climate change is here to stay,” he added.

Recommended: The struggle of Mexico's native corn against GMOs