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Fitting, Elizabeth. The struggle for maize: Campesinos, workers, and transgenic corn in the Mexican countryside.

Fitting, Elizabeth. The struggle for maize: Campesinos, workers, and transgenic corn in the Mexican countryside. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 302 pp.

I grew up in a working class New York City neighborhood eating tortillas de maiz, corn tortillas, made daily from yellow corn masa, dough, by my Mexican immigrant mother. She was adept at making them by hand, seemingly without thinking, while she talked into the phone which was folded into her smooth, brown neck, while she sang along to the Spanish language radio, as she admonished us for tasks not completed. Corn was for us who were so far from Mexico, as it was for my Mexican-indigenous ancestors, a continuous symbol that bonded family members and community together through the rituals of making, eating, and passing las tortillas. In my mother's Mexico, cultural bonding was present in the process of growing and grinding, bringing home the corn that would be made into masa by the women as they gossiped. In our modest Manhattan 5th floor walk-up apartment, the making of the tortilla served with virtually every meal was an essential part of our daily diet, despite the attractively packaged white bread available at the local grocery.

My mother tells stories of her childhood in Central Mexico, sometimes having barely enough to eat; yet it was her mother's instinctive ability to harvest nopales, cactus or ongos, mushrooms in the wild, making these with chile rojo, red chile, and eaten with tortillas that sustained life until economics improved. Memories of visiting my family in Mexico City bring back scenes of socializing with primos, cousins and neighbors, sometimes taking place while standing in line to buy fresh tortillas from the neighborhood tortilleria. Taking them back to my aunt's small apartment, they were part of the fragrant and boisterous meal where genders and generations from both sides of the border came together.

In The struggle for maize: Campesinos, workers, and transgenic corn in the Mexican countryside, the degraded, genetically manufactured (GM) state of corn that appears to characterize its current cultivation in Mexico and the United States, is made clear. One cannot help but feel indignant when considering how capitalism, now globalization with its friendly sounding descriptor of international integration, consistently destroys cultures and lives and manipulates food staples for profit. For Chicanos in America the tortilla is considered the cultural symbol that binds us as a collective to Mexico and our indigenous ancestors. The type of tortilla, corn or flour, is what differentiates us regionally, but inevitable it is corn, la mazorca, el elote, that is our tie to the brown, matriarchal earth.

Reading Fitting's book, the realization suddenly hits that we are no longer eating natural corn tortillas, and have not been for some time! The personal meaning of the tortilla is now changed. Tainted with greed, science and industrialization, one ponders the implications of the new tortilla. Could this mean its decline among Chicanos in the U.S., or the rise of the criollo seed tortilla made by new age gentrified organic enterprises, stripped of Chicano or Mexican language and ethnicity, making the product culturally irrelevant for Chicanos and Mexicanos in the U.S.? Perhaps it will encourage dietary shifts, or better yet, acts of resistance like the planting of mom and pop criollo seed based gardens and grass roots criollo seed exchanges, tortillas made by hand from the corn products of these gardens, or motivate enough indignation toward activism.

It would be unthinkable that the goal of Americanization programs in the early 1900s to move the Mexican American population from tortillas to white bread (Mintz, 2007), has finally succeeded! Or that perhaps the objective of eating "food purged of taste, health and cultural and geographic identity'" (Fitting, 19) has been achieved. The corn mothers, a matriarchal theme in Native American and Chicano cultural arts, are now living within a food regime scenario; our tortillas are controlled by agribusiness and neo-liberal policies.

The manipulation of consumer products is evident in the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1993, and in the corn scenario, interpreted as the control of Mexican agriculture. Among NAFTA's machinations was the implementation of the Terminator, an agricultural technology that genetically manipulates grain to produce sterile seeds, thus not allowing Mexican farmers to save and use seeds for later planting cycles. At the turn of the 21st century this technology affected three million Mexican producers of basic grains (Enciso L., Agosto, 2001) to include corn, continuing Mexico's economic and psychological dependency on the United States (Deacon, 2001; Maza, 2002). Embedded in such schemes is the scientifically improved GM corn, the focus of Fitting's book, based on the community of San Jose in the Tehuacan Valley in the state of Puebla, Mexico and the GM debates spanning a 6 year period, coinciding with Vicente Fox' Mexican Presidency 2000-2006. Related areas discussed are the basic destruction and reconstruction of traditional indigenous communities that grow maiz, the need to include "campesinos, consumers, and concerned citizens in the risk assessment process" (Fitting, 6), and the dangerous nature of the food that Mexicans and Americans are now eating.

Written thoughtfully, the book describes a complex scenario while yielding a comprehensive perspective. Fitting draws the reader into the GM debates and its three key commodities: corn, water and labor, extending the issue to the grassroots level where daily struggles for survival of rural Mexicans take place across generations, borders and over decades. The GM controversy is presented through many voices: state bureaucrats, activists, campesinos, consumers, scholars. At the heart of the debates is In Defense of Maize--a watch dog coalition organization, representative of rural Mexican interests, publisher of information on the GM debates, and organizer of demonstrations. In Defense presents a major challenge to government, the pro GM scientific community and business in its advocacy on the behalf of campesions, cultivators, consumers and environmentalists. To this discussion Fitting interweaves the overarching grasp of globalization, helpful in understanding GM corn and its myriad of companions, and the rationalization by the globalization complex that GM is the answer to the inefficient and backward campesino style of corn cultivation. The book's introduction is in itself a document on globalization worthy of separate study, and its appendix offers 30 mini-snapshots of interviews with local growers in the Tehuacan Valley during 2001-2002.

The struggle for maize: Campesinos, workers, and transgenic corn in the Mexican countryside examines the extent of neoliberal success in transforming peasants into "new rural subjects.... either agricultural entrepreneurs who produce for export or an inexpensive labor force" (Fitting, 4). Ethnographic interviews describe differing perspectives between genders and generations on maize cultivation and the appeal and impact of trans-border employment and maquiladora work for the region motivated by the process of accumulation by dispossession. The latter, a process characterized by the amassing of profit and control of resources, "... by stripping people of their access to resources or through the 'enclosure' of a communal or open access to resource, undermining people's ability to maintain themselves and their households without selling their labor power" (30-31). Various levels of survival strategies used by families and communities are described, including transformed gender roles and migration to the U.S., wrought with both financial benefits and physical and psychological perils. Such narratives beg readers to make their own connections to the current immigration controversy in the U.S. and the aggressive racial profiling that Arizona SB 1070 has resurrected, once again lumping together illegal and legal residents of Mexican descent in the U.S., memories of repatriation in the '30s when resources were scarce for all (Balderama & Rodriguez, 1995) and fear and scapegoating were high.

Included in community narratives are discussions on campesino identity and the survival of traditional corn cultivation, two themes that hold strong historical and cultural meaning in regional Mexico, and in this respect embody a resistance and challenge to pro-GM government policies. Competing sides of the debate provide the reader with a portrait of corn cultivation in the Tehuacan Valley and its connection to the food supply of urban consumers and campesino/farmers in Mexico and the U. S., and farmers in Canada.

As individuals and family and community members, awareness of this connection is crucial for us all. Globalization, or capitalism at a faster speed, in which NAFTA and the "agro food complex" (Fitting, 19) are embedded, are directly linked to the food we eat. Not only has NAFTA, an exploitative labor machine, created a climate of accumulation by dispossession in Mexico but it also contributes to the detriment of the health of Mexicans and Americans through its importing of GM Mexican corn, and its production in the U.S.

The overproduction of GM corn in the U.S., mostly consumed through corn fed pork and beef, and high fructose corn syrup soft drinks and processed foods, snacks and cereals, have a detrimental impact on the environment and general health. "In the year 2000 GM corn accounted for 25 percent of all corn grown in the United States. Nine years later GM corn had risen to 85 percent, of which 17 percent was insect-resistant (Bt corn), 22 percent was herbicide-tolerant ..." (Fitting, 47-48). Other GM foods on the toxic list are soy, cotton, papaya, rice, tomatoes, rapeseed, dairy products, potatoes and peas (GMO Alert, para 2).

Perhaps more alarming is that "In the United States, once transgenic corn has been harvested there is no mandatory labeling or segregation of it from conventional corn" (Fitting, 48), comprising a growing demand for labeling in the U.S. to follow successes in the UK and Europe where GM foods are required to be labeled (Harmon & Pollack, 2012). As the push for the spread of GM is American corporate based, and knowing the European resistance to American encroachment, such a success is not surprising.

The business as usual arrangement between government and corporations is clear in the 2009 appointment of Michael Taylor as senior advisor for the Food and Drug Administration by President Obama. The basis of the noticeable flurry that this appointment caused among consumer and environmental groups was Taylor's past presidency of Monsanto, a mega corporation with an eye to GM food production. "It was during his term that GMO's [genetically modified organisms] were approved in the US without undergoing tests to determine if they were safe for human consumption" (GMO Alert, 2012, para. 1).

The safety of GM foods is still a matter of debatable opinion while a lack of labeling makes shopping choices for Americans both frustrating and futile, although some clandestine labeling has taken place on the west coast (Harmon & Pollack). The demand for labeling, however, has support in animal studies that have shown the potential hazards of GM foods for humans. "Toxic and allergic reactions, sick, sterile, and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals. The effects on humans of consuming these new combinations of proteins produced in GMOs are unknown and have not been studied" (GMO Education, para. 7). Reports of thousands of sheep dying in India after grazing on post harvest Bt cotton plants (GMO Education) and fertility problems and small offspring found in mice that had been fed on GM corn (GMO Alert, para. 3) add to the alarm.

The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside is a must read for all interested in the invasion of our personal lives and health by globalization. The book not only narrates the problem of maize as a globalized commodity, the dispossession of campesinos as part of the capitalist accumulation process, and widespread commodification, it makes very clear the abusive character of globalization as it reaches into the "historical, cultural, political and environmental "place and spaces of all players (Fitting, 31). More sinister may be the hypothesized connection between acceleration of GM based illnesses in humans and potential profits for the pharmaceutical and medical complex.

Today globalization, or international integration, appears as an evolved synthesis of colonization, imperialism and capitalism. In the interest of profit, globalization boasts no borders, giving all farmers an opportunity to leave their agricultural lands, as subsidized produce from developed countries flood the markets, out pricing native criollo produce. The opportunity to migrate to crowded urban areas transforms the farmer into part of a massive destitute labor force for hire. And what did Marx give as two pre-requisites for a capital economy? Capital for investment and landless peasants forced to sell their labor, an ideal scenario for profit and exploitation (Zentella, in press). Fitting is prophetic, "Our future food supply may depend in part on small scale agriculturalists and their maintenance of biodiversity in the field" (Fitting, 237). We have a future before us, one of activism, resistance and back to relatively unaltered nature movements, with campesinos staying on their lands if that is their wish. Reading Fitting's book is a part of this future building.


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M. Deacon. (2001, October 31). Economists debate dollarization in Mexico. The News. Retrieved January 11, 2001 from http://www.thenews

L.A. Encino. (2001, Agosto). Afectara a 3 milliones de campesinos Mexicanos nueva tecnologia lanzada por Estados Unidos [3 million Mexican rural farmers will be affected by American technology], La Jornada, p. 23.

GMO Alert: Top 10 Genetically Modified Foods to Avoid Eating (June 11, 2012). Retrieved from eating.html.

GMO Education. Retrieved from

A. Harmon & A. Pollack. (May 24 2012). Battle Brewing Over Labeling of Genetically Modified Food. New York Times. Retrieved from

E. Maza. (2002, May 19). La migracion consebida como terrorismo [Immigration perceived as terrorism]. Processo, p. 16.

S. Mintz. 2007. Digital History. Retrieved from

Y. Zentella. (2012). Review Essay. The Middle East and West: Politics, Economics and Discourse. Unpublished manuscript submitted for publication.

Yoly Zentella

Walden University
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Author:Zentella, Yoly
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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