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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Environmentalism versus Poor (Again)

The current pro-ethanol fad in the United States apparently is a factor in making poor Mexicans cut back on corn tortillas, a dietary staple, says a January 27 Washington Post article by Manuel Roig-Franzia:
Thick, doughy tortillas roll hot off the conveyor belt all day at Aurora Rosales's little shop in this congested city built on a dry lake bed east of Mexico City.

Using cooking techniques that date to the Mayan empire, Rosales has never altered her recipe. Nor did her father, grandfather or great-grandfather.

On good days, the neighbors line up for her tortillas.

But these are not good days, and sometimes hours pass without any customers.

Mexico is in the grip of the worst tortilla crisis in its modern history. Dramatically rising international corn prices, spurred by demand for the grain-based fuel ethanol, have led to expensive tortillas. That, in turn, has led to lower sales for vendors such as Rosales and angry protests by consumers.

The uproar is exposing this country's outsize dependence on tortillas in its diet -- especially among the poor -- and testing the acumen of the new president, Felipe Calderón...

Tortilla prices have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of Mexico since last summer....

"When you talk about Mexico, when you talk about culture and societal roots, when you talk about the economy, you talk about the tortilla," said Lorenzo Mejía, president of a tortilla makers trade group. "Everything revolves around the tortilla."

The ancient Mayans believed they were created by gods who mixed their blood with ground corn. They called themselves "Children of the Corn," a phrase Mexicans still sometimes use to describe themselves.

Poor Mexicans get more than 40 percent of their protein from tortillas, according to Amanda Gálvez, a nutrition expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Modern-day tortilla makers such as Rosales use "an ancient and absolutely wise" Mayan process called "nixtamalizacion," Gálvez said.

The process is straightforward. Large kernels of white corn are mixed with powdered calcium and boiled, then ground into a dough with wheels made of volcanic rock.

The resulting tortillas are more pliable and more durable than those typically found in U.S. stores. Mexicans say tortillas are their "spoons" because they use them to scoop up beans, and can serve also as their "plates" because they're sturdy enough to hold a pile of braised meat and vegetables.

The tortilla-making process, Gálvez said, releases antioxidants and niacin, which allows them to be absorbed by the body, and the membranes on each corn kernel provide important dietary fiber. As a result of eating tortillas, Mexican children have a very low incidence of rickets, a bone disease caused by calcium deficiency that is common in developing countries.

"It is absolutely crucial for our population to keep eating tortillas," Gálvez said.

Gálvez said she believes the price increase is already steering Mexicans toward less nutritious foods. The typical Mexican family of four consumes about one kilo -- 2.2 pounds -- of tortillas each day. In some areas of Mexico, the price per kilo has risen from 63 cents a year ago to between $1.36 and $1.81 earlier this month.

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.

Many poor Mexicans, Gálvez said, have been substituting cheap instant noodles, which often sell for as little as 27 cents a cup and are loaded with less nutritious starch and sodium.

"In the short term, the people who can buy food are going to get fatter," she said. "For the poor, the effect is going to be hunger."

There is almost universal consensus in Mexico that higher demand for ethanol is at the root of price increases for corn and tortillas.

Ethanol, which has become more popular as an alternative fuel in the United States and elsewhere because of high oil prices, is generally made with yellow corn. But the price of white corn, which is used to make tortillas, is indexed in Mexico to the international price of yellow corn, said Puente, the Mexico City economist...

Mexico, which counts corn as one of its major agricultural products, now faces a shortage...

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Posted by Amy Ridenour at 9:34 PM

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