From the hundreds of millions of tortillas consumed every year to the countless tons of corn-enriched feed that fattens livestock and poultry, corn is perhaps Mexico’s most important agricultural commodity, one at the center of its life and culture.
Now corn has taken on a new role – as a powerful lever for Mexican officials in the runup to talks over NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The reason: Much of the corn that Mexico consumes comes from the United States, making it America’s top agricultural export to its southern neighbor. And even though President Donald Trump appears to be pulling back from his vows to completely overhaul NAFTA, Mexico has taken his threats to heart and has begun flexing its own muscle.
The Mexican government is exploring buying its corn elsewhere — including Argentina or Brazil — as well as increasing domestic production. In a fit of political pique, a Mexican senator even submitted a bill to eliminate corn purchases from the U.S. within three years.
U.S. corn shipments to Mexico totaled nearly $2.6 billion last year and are part of an elaborate agricultural trade relationship between the two nations that has helped to interlace their economies. But though the corn business is a tiny fraction of the overall $525 billion in annual trade between the two countries, it has gained outsize importance and become something of a symbol for the nations’ economic codependence.
The prospect that the U.S. could lose its largest foreign market for corn and other key products has shaken farming communities throughout the American Midwest, where corn production is a vital part of the economy. The threat is particularly unsettling for many residents of the Corn Belt because much of the region voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the presidential election.
“If we lose Mexico as a customer, it will be absolutely devastating to the ag economy,” said Philip Gordon, 68, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a farm in Saline, Michigan, that has been in his family for 140 years.
Gordon said he planned to call Trump at the White House “and remind him we need trade.”
“He’s a businessman,” Gordon said. “He understands how much support for him came from the agricultural community.”
A Trump administration document that circulated on Capitol Hill last week appeared to present a more moderate approach to NAFTA negotiations, seeking to preserve much of the existing agreement and recognizing the interconnectedness of the two nations’ economies, cultures and histories.
Still, people involved in agricultural trade on both sides of the border said they were not about to rest easy on the basis of the document, which even the White House seemed to disavow.
“It’s really hard to track with this president,” said Todd Hultman, a grains analyst at DTN, an agriculture news and data service based in Omaha, Nebraska. “The campaign rhetoric has been really over the top. But what actions are really going to come from the White House is still a mystery.”
Trump has repeatedly asserted that Mexico has been the big winner under NAFTA, and the U.S. the loser. But many leaders in the agricultural and food industries in the U.S. – not just in the corn market – hope Trump does not disrupt the agreement too much.
“When you mix politics with economics, you hope that economics influences your political decisions and not vice versa,” said Luis A. Ribera, associate professor of agricultural economics and director of the Center for North American Studies at Texas A&M University.
Many leaders in the American agriculture industry say NAFTA has been a boon for farmers in the U.S., particularly because it opened up new foreign markets and helped to expand agricultural exports more than fourfold since the agreement was signed.
In 2016, the U.S. exported nearly $18 billion of agricultural products to Mexico, the third-largest market for these exports, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Mexico is not only the leading destination of American corn, but it also imports more dairy products, poultry and wheat from the U.S. than any other nation, and is one of the top importers of American pork, soybeans and beef, the department says.
Mexico imported about 13.8 million tons of American corn last year, according to the Mexican government. Nearly all — about 12.7 million tons — was yellow corn, which is largely used for livestock feed, supplementing about 3.5 million tons of homegrown yellow corn.
The remainder of corn imports were of the white variety, which is used mostly for human consumption and is a key ingredient in tortillas. Mexico is essentially self-sufficient in white corn. The country produced 22.2 million tons last year and imported about 1.1 million tons of American white corn to make up for lucrative white corn exports to South Africa and other countries, according to the Mexican government.
And just as international supply chains in automobiles, aerospace and other industries crisscross the border, the same is true of agricultural products. Mexican calves – possibly fed U.S. corn – are exported to the United States, where they are further fattened and then butchered for meat that may be exported for sale abroad, including to Mexico.
Farmers and agricultural industry representatives say that U.S. farmers are already reeling from higher production costs and declining commodity prices, and that Trump’s threats on trade and immigration have injected more uncertainty.
“There’s a lot of volatility in agricultural markets to begin with,” said Barbara Patterson, government relations director of the National Farmers Union, “and shutting off our borders or losing access to trading partners has farmers concerned.”
The loss of Mexico as a market for agricultural products, farmers say, could presage job losses and bankruptcies.
“We’d like to see careful consideration and a cautious approach,” Patterson said.
Formal talks to renegotiate NAFTA are still at least several months away. Still, corn producers, as well as their counterparts elsewhere in American agriculture, have begun to lobby elected officials and the administration.
“Soup to nuts: corn, dairy, meat, specialty products, fruit — they’re all pretty much gathered together,” said Tom Sleight, president and chief executive of the U.S. Grains Council. Producers, he said, are seeking to remind the administration of the importance of trade and Mexico to agriculture’s bottom line.
The administration’s threats have already begun to sour long-standing business arrangements between U.S. sellers and Mexican buyers.
“Relationships are getting frosty with our customers right now,” Sleight said. “Usually it’s been a very symbiotic relationship, but recently it’s gotten a little more difficult. Mexicans are saying, ‘Why are you doing this to us? We’ve been your best customers.’”
The Mexican government has not delayed in exploring other markets in which to purchase corn. A top agricultural official from Argentina visited Mexico City last month to discuss the possibility of increasing sales of Argentine yellow corn to Mexico. Officials from Mexico’s Agriculture Ministry are planning a trip to Argentina and Brazil this month to discuss increasing corn purchases from those countries.
Last month, Mexico’s deputy economy minister told The Financial Times that Mexico was exploring the possibility of allowing duty-free access to Argentine and Brazilian corn imports.
Developing new import arrangements with South America will not be easy, officials said. New relationships would have to be brokered, and costs to import may also be higher, officials say, in part because there are fewer established transportation routes between Mexico and the Mercosur countries of South America.
Mexican officials say, however, that an increase in trade between the regions might lead to more competition, which could increase efficiency and lower costs.
The showdown on NAFTA has also inspired Mexican agricultural officials and producers to step up programs that would increase domestic corn production and revive a sector undercut by the agreement, said Alejandro Vázquez Salido, director of Aserca, a Mexican government agency that supports farmers and promotes the marketing of Mexican agricultural products.
Some economists blame NAFTA for causing widespread unemployment in the Mexican agricultural sector by opening the floodgates to heavily subsidized U.S. agricultural products, especially corn. A 2014 study estimated that 1.9 million agricultural jobs were wiped out, mainly those of small family farmers, helping to drive more illegal immigration into the U.S.
Vázquez said that even before Trump began to attack NAFTA and Mexico, the Mexican authorities had begun to discuss plans to substitute imports with national production. “But these new challenges, these new policies that we’re facing, are having us move in that direction faster than we were,” he said.
Trump has knocked Mexicans “out of our comfort zone,” forcing agriculture officials to find ways for Mexico to be less dependent on U.S. imports, Vázquez continued. “We’re starting to move where we should’ve moved a long time ago: trying to produce internally what we’re importing.”