Ecosystem services play a huge role in enabling the environments where food systems can thrive. Agricultural ecosystems rely on these services provided for free by nature, including pollination, biological pest control, maintenance of soil structure and fertility, nutrient cycling and hydrological services (Power 2010, p.1). These services are classified based on their type: production (the productivity of the agroecosystem based on the crop yield obtained), support (soil retention, carbon storage, humidification, and nutrient supply), regulation (air, water and soil quality, pest control, biodiversity, and pollinators), and cultural (recreation, education, wellbeing, cultural heritage, native crops conservation, and job sources) (Ibarrola-Rivas and Galicia, p. 9). Table 2 outlines the four main production systems that Ibarrola-Rivas and Galicia believe best illustrate the diversity of agricultural production systems throughout the country.
Table 2: The four main crop production systems in Mexico and their associated ecosystem services vary in terms of positive or negative environmental impacts and cultural importance.
Production System Producer Size/Inputs – Production Services Support Services Regulation Services Cultural Services
Extensive Traditional Small/low, external inputs – low crop yield Low: characterized by mismanagement, soil depletion, deforestation Low: high soil erosion, higher risks Moderate
Agroecological Milpa Small/low, local inputs – low crop yield High: traditional management practices, low soil depletion and erosion High: combines several crops to increase resilience and food diversity for self-sufficiency High
Intensive/Industrial Large (agribusinesses)/high, external inputs – high crop yield Low Low: large use of energy, local pollution (eutrophication, air, soil), GHG emissions Low
Organic Agriculture Small/local organic inputs – low crop yield High: sustainable management practices High High
This information comes from Table 1 and the descriptions offered by Ibarrola-Rivas and Galicia in their article,Rethinking Food Security in Mexico: Discussing the Need for Sustainable Transversal Policies Linking Food Production and Food Consumption (pp. 6-7).
Now that Ive introduced the five main diets and four main agricultural systems in Mexico, the following (Table 3 and Figure 1) demonstrate the connections between food consumption and crop production. Ibarrola-Rivas and Galicia used the size of the agricultural producers (based on cropland area) to identify extensive/milpa and intensive systems.
Table 3: Defining the three sustainability pillars for crop production and food consumption
Figure 1: The Five scenarios of the current Mexican food system illustrates the sustainability of both production and consumption based on the definitions in Table 3.
Figure 1 is an exceptional representation of the current food system in Mexico and the associated sustainability ratings of each crop production and consumption pattern. We know society demands natural resources (land, water, nutrients) to produce food in agricultural systems, but what this figure shows is the tradeoff between the types of food and their associated environmental, economic, and social impacts. Because we know that the demand for food is most often situated spatially away from food-production sites (such as urban areas and agricultural systems), it becomes clear that geography should be a leading approach to understand the interrelationships among these three sustainability pillars at different spatial and temporal scales (Ibarrola-Rivas and Galicia, p. 3).
How likely is it that the Mexican government would throw its support behind the clear sustainability winner in Figure 1traditional milpas? The priority of federal policies for environmental sustainability can be put into context when considering Mexicos top exports and leading industries. Within Mexicos top 10 export goods lie oil & mineral fuels (#4), precious stones & metals (#8), fruit & nuts (#9), and vegetables (#10). Mexicos top two industries are 1) food and beverages and 2) tobaccoboth of which rely heavily on ecosystem services; its next top industries are 3) chemicals and 4) iron and steelboth of which depend heavily on imports from other countries (globalEDGE). Thus, the key priorities of federal Mexican policies must include support for both agriculture and trade, presenting a major challenge when considering the need to also mitigate impacts on the environment. Tradeoffs will have to be made when trying to balance federal investments in promoting ecosystem services as well as rural infrastructure to support the agricultural sector (even extractive industries too, after all, everyone benefits from ease of transport). Policies related to boosting food systems infrastructure will likely lead to more land degradation, even if accompanied by policies that incentive sustainable agriculture; no matter what kind of farming techniques are employed, paving more roads and bridges to support trade will result in deforestation and land use change.
IV. Gender in Mexican Food Systems
It cannot be overlooked that Latina women, more often than not, are often held responsible for the nutrition of their children and families. Given their higher rates of malnutrition and obesity, it can be safely assumed that this means poorer women (with less access to healthy foods) often sacrifice their own nutrition to be able to give their families more nutritious options. To put this in FAO terms with regard to the Utilization pillar of food securitywomen may be not be going hungry, but they may not be getting the most healthy and optimal biological utilization from their foods either, thereby leading to malnutrition or overweight/obesity. This likely comes from a legacy of traditional gender roles, wherein rural women are meant to take care of the home and prepare meals, while men tend to the land; these notions of gender roles are carried on in modern Mexican society, mostly because of the prominence of womens pride in cooking and mens machismo attitudes.
For some inspiration, I now turn to John Rosss writings about a Purepecha Indian village in west-central Michoacan state, where tells of the dramatic changes in gender roles related to the tending of milpas, or corn patches. Fifty years ago, ploughing the fields and planting in the Spring was strictly mens work; wives and daughters would help weed and glean in the harvest, although even then, it was the men who would strap on baskets and move up and down the rows, snapping off the heavier ears of maize to be sold in the markets of neighboring cities (Ross). In these times, women were responsible for the home, taking care of children, tending to the chickens, and preparing meals. Only a couple of widows had to administer their inherited milpas or tend to their land themselves. This all changed in the 1980s as neoliberal political regimes took hold, which led to more and more men migrating North and across the border. Then, under presidents Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo (1988-2000), the Mexican Constitution was amendedor mutilated, ratherto allow the privatization of communally-held land; this meant grain distribution was handed over to multinational corporations, guaranteed food prices were eliminated, and credit for poor farmers evaporated. Moreover, every year since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), millions of tons of cheap U.S. and Canadian corn have flooded Mexican markets, forcing smallholder farmers out of business.
These macroeconomic circumstances initiated a surge of women applying to work in the newly opened, high-value agro-industries; by the end of the 1990s, 950,000 women were employed in the production of vegetables, making up of 90 percent of employment in this sector (SOFA, p. 24). The smallholder agricultural sector was further demolished by right-ring presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon (2000-2010) who favored big agribusiness. Ross cites the 2004 Carnegie Endowment investigation into the impacts of NAFTA on poor Mexican farmers, which calculated that 1.8 million farmers had abandoned their milpas during NAFTAs first decade. Because each farm family represents about five Mexicans, the real number of people leaving milpa farm systems comes close to 10 millionat least half of them women. Ross also introduces some staggering numbers: according to Mexicos 2005 half-census, the population of women in Mexico outweighed men by 50-53 million. Today, while many are still tied to the home, women now comprise 40 percent of the workforce. In the rural sector where 28 of the population resided (in 2010, now the number is closer to 20 percent), one estimate suggested that 18 million women were the primary workers on the land, even though only 4.5 million actually had legal titles. Having legal land titles is a critical part of womens autonomy and control of resources because it allows them membership and voice to vote in the ejido (villages that are designated rural production units), as well as access to agricultural credits and full agrarian rights. But women landholders have often been relegated to servant stature in the ejido assemblies, where only 2.5 percent served as officials of the 28,000 communal farms that were designated by the Secretary of Agriculture (Ross). Nonetheless, many women have eschewed the male-dominated agricultural system in favor of starting their own group such as the Ecological Campesinas of the Sierra of Petatlan Guerrero and the CONOC (National Council of Women Farmers Organizations).
The dramatic changes in migration and gender roles have left their mark on women milpa farmers, at least according to Ross who has observed trends in Michoacan. Since many people ended up selling their milpas, the share of milpa landowners has fallen dramatically; Ibarrola-Rivas and Galica estimate that only 8 percent of total maize production in Mexico is grown on milpa production systems, making up 12 percent of Mexicos cropland; meanwhile, large producers represent only 4 percent of all maize growers, yet they grow 50 percent of the countrys total maize production, using up 40 percent of Mexicos cropland to do it (p. 9). Ross characterizes the women who still till their milpa parcels as having to work a triple workday just to make ends meet, finding jobs outside of the community as domestics or factory workers, taking care of the house and the kids and the chickens, and tending to the milpa. Since some husbands have returned, Ross observed that the once rigidly defined roles of men and women in the Mexican countryside have been irreversibly altered. Left to under their management, the women have become empowered; men are not the sole breadwinners now, and decisions must be made together. Women farmers have feminized agriculture.
Interestingly, Ross also cites agrarian analyst Armando Bartra, whose research suggests gender articulates how farmers approach the land. Men wrestle with the crops and the land soil, and theyll resort to whatever it takes to achieve bigger and better harvestssuch as using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds. In contrast,women are more in sync with the land, according the Bartra, Because they do not want to poison the land and taint their familys food with chemicals, women are resistant to using artificial inputs such as chemicals. They till the soil to keep their families well-nourished; making profit is a secondary concern. Bartra concludes that the feminization of farming is the only salvation for Mexican agriculture (Ross).
V. Conclusion: Policy Approaches for a Sustainable Food System
So far, this paper has assessed the status of food insecurity in Mexico, highlighting the inequalities among gender and demographics based on geography (Table 1). This paper has also assessed Mexicos dominant food production systems and their impact on ecosystem services (Table 2). Then this paper assessed the sustainability of these systems using an integrated approach, combining crop production and food consumption and based on three pillars: environment, economic, and social (Table 3 and Figure 1). Ultimately, it was determined that milpa production systems are the most sustainable, owing to their resilience, low costs for both producers and consumers, and low per-capita resources, along with their promotion of healthy diets and cultural importance.