Mexican Agribusiness
and the U.S. Food System

by Jorge G. Lizárraga

The news came as a shock: children throughout the nation had been served school lunches contaminated with a hepatitis virus. In Michigan some 150 children and adults had come down with hepatitis-A after consuming fruit cups made from tainted batches of frozen strawberries. Local and state public health officials in other states, including California, began to report hundreds of exposures to hepatitis-A from school lunches to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The outbreak led to an expensive and disruptive campaign to identify and vaccinate thousands of students throughout the country that might have consumed the questionable berries. In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, students from nearly 50 schools that had served the strawberries were treated with vaccine.

This incident focused the nation’s attention on the issue of food safety. Editorial writers and concerned public wondered how and why had the contamination happened? For many Americans, the question of where the strawberries had come from was also an important one. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the CDC traced the contamination to the Andrew and Williamson Company, a food processor based in San Diego County. The strawberries had been purchased and imported by the company from Mexico. For Andrew and Williamson this revelation led to many legal problems -- federal law mandates that only US-grown produce can be used in preparing meals for federal lunch programs.

In fact, Mexico is the source of many fresh and processed agricultural products that consumers in the US and Canada purchase. During the winter season, for example, about half of all fresh produce sold in North American markets is from Mexico. Throughout the year Mexico also provides processed and frozen foods such as broccoli, asparagus, and strawberries. During the next few years Mexico will be shipping even more avocados, table grapes, and citrus fruit to US markets. Because of trade liberalization policies and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), agricultural imports from Mexico to the US and Canada have grown dramatically over the last several years. Today the annual value of Mexican agricultural products entering the US is about one billion dollars.

Food safety and public health is a concern with food grown both in the U.S. and Mexico. Hepatitis-A virus thrives under unsanitary conditions. Feces-contaminate irrigation water can taint agricultural products directly, as can the hands and bodies of workers who harvest and handle the food. Because of lax enforcement of Mexican health and labor safety regulations, field conditions in Mexico are often ripe for the spread of many disease. For many farm workers, clean water for drinking and hand washing in the fields is not available. Portable toilets or nearby rest rooms are rare on many of the larger farms.

Many consumer advocates and environmentalists have also raised questions about the quantity and type of toxic agrochemical residues that remain on food from Mexico. In recent years, FDA inspectors stationed along the US-Mexico border have detected residues of several compounds banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the FDA, about seven percent of Mexican produce has been found to exceed the most basic levels of contamination, as opposed to three percent of U.S.-grown produce.

Questions about the safety of Mexican-grown produce are important ones. But it would be unfair to single out Mexico’s export food system for criticism. This sector is in many ways an extension of the U.S. agro-food system; its farms have the look and feel of California’s large industrial farming operations. The names of US firms like Dole, Green Giant, and John Deere dot the Mexican agricultural landscape.

American investors, agroindustrial firms, and food companies are responsible for the emergence and development of the three agricultural regions most associated with the Mexican export trade: Culiacan, the Bajio, and San Quintin. If Mexico’s agricultural sector has developed problems it is because it has followed a U.S. model of food production -- one that relies on a large pool of low-wage seasonal and migrant farm workers, intensive irrigation and complex water delivery systems, and the application of large quantities of agrochemicals.

The San Quintin Valley is exemplary of how linked Mexican agriculture is with the U.S. Located along the Pacific Coast of Baja California, about 300 miles south of San Diego, this region’s output is geared almost exclusively for the export trade. California-based growers, often working in partnership with established Mexican export growers, directly manage and supervise production of high-end produce. The strawberries that were responsible for the hepatitis outbreak came from this area. San Quintin depends on low-wage seasonal labor, wide use and application of chemicals, and the availability of cheap water. As in Mexico’s other agricultural regions, these practices have led to social and environmental problems.

The San Quintin system depends on seasonal migrant farm workers; at least 100,000 workers appear for the harvest season from January to April, most coming from the Indian populations of southern Mexico. Housing for the farm workers is crude at best. Wages are very low; at peak season a farm worker can expect a daily wage of about three dollars. Benefits, such as health care, are non-existent. Child labor is common, and work is often done in fields that have been or are in the process of being sprayed with harsh and toxic chemicals.

One of the most pressing problems for San Quintin is water. The Baja Peninsula is one of Mexico’s most arid regions. The San Quintin area receives less than ten inches of rain per year. Water for the intensive agricultural operations comes from ancient aquifers underneath the valley. Since operations intensified in the late 1980s, the water table has been dropping at the rate of about one foot a year. The extraction, or ‘mining,’ of water has been intense enough for sea water from the adjacent Pacific Ocean to intrude into the aquifer. Brackish water from the intrusion, along with “conventional” salinization from everyday irrigation practices is leading to the loss of fertile farm soils in the valley. Growers I have interviewed expect only about another ten “good” years, even with drip-irrigation techniques, before the aquifer is used up.

In preparation for the time that the valley will have to be abandoned, several other as yet undeveloped coastal valleys along the Baja Peninsula south of San Quintin have been targeted for future agricultural expansion. Each valley’s aquifer is expected to support intensive commercial agriculture for about ten to fifteen years. As one valley’s fertility and water is used up, operations will move on to the next valley. Test plots and initial operations have already begun in many of these areas.

There are some signs of hope. Like in the U.S., a small but growing movement of growers are choosing to “go organic.” To be sure, the primary incentive of most Mexican export growers who practice organic farming in these zones is an economic one. One firm, Del Cabo, of Northern California, contracts with small local Mexican growers in Baja California to raise organic vegetables for the U.S. winter market; these products are flown to U.S. markets where they tend to fetch very good prices for the local growers. Del Cabo’s farmers practice integrated pest management, are careful with their water use, and rely on natural sources of fertilizer to grow their produce. Other farmers, seeing the success of their neighbors, are beginning to turn to organic farming as well.

The alarm and concern that was raised by this year’s strawberry contamination should be seen as a warning not only about Mexico’s agricultural problems, but about those of our own farming sector as well. Incidents like this one may give people reason to question how and at what cost their food is produced.

Jorge Lizárraga is finishing his Ph.D. in geography at UC Berkeley and is a lecturer in geography and environmental studies at San Francisco State University and California State University, Hayward.

From Urban Ecologist, The Journal of Urban Ecology

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