The Struggle for Maize

Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside

The Struggle for Maize

Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: 1 photo, 11 tables, 2 maps, 1 figure Published: December 2010

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Environmental Studies, Latin American Studies > Mexico

When scientists discovered transgenes in local Mexican corn varieties in 2001, their findings intensified a debate about not only the import of genetically modified (GM) maize into Mexico but also the fate of the peasantry under neoliberal globalization. While the controversy initially focused on the extent to which gene flow from transgenic to local varieties threatens maize biodiversity, anti-GM activists emphasized the cultural significance of the crop in Mexico and demanded that campesinos and consumers have a voice in the creation of GM maize and rural policies. In The Struggle for Maize, Elizabeth Fitting explores the competing claims of the GM corn debate in relation to the livelihood struggles of small-scale maize producers, migrants, and maquiladora workers from the southern Tehuacán Valley. She argues that the region’s biodiversity is affected by state policies that seek to transform campesinos into entrepreneurs and rural residents into transnational migrant laborers. While corn production and a campesino identity remain important to an older generation, younger residents have little knowledge of or interest in maize agriculture; they seek out wage labor in maquiladoras and the United States. Fitting’s ethnography illustrates how agricultural producers and their families respond creatively to economic hardship and Mexico’s “neoliberal corn regime,” which promotes market liberalization, agricultural “efficiency,” and the reduction of state services over domestic maize production and food sovereignty.


“[A]n important addition to much more than the ethnographic study of agriculture and the Mexican countryside. . . . This outstanding book is part of a new wave of anthropological scholarship. Fitting combines the strengths of rich local ethnographic work without losing sight of the global nature of agricultural change. . . . Fitting’s book should find a large audience that includes anthropologists, development specialists, those interested in the role and place of genetically modified crops and food studies, as well as specialists in Mexican and Latin American studies.” — Jeffrey H. Cohen, Journal of Anthropological Research

“[T]his is a good and useful book, and scholars interested in genetically modified crops and the politics of resources in Mexico will find much to think about within these pages.” — Nicole Mottier, Agricultural History

“This is a timely contribution that deserves attention... The clear organization of the text and its lucid prosemake it appropriate for use in upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses such as rural studies, globalization, political ecology, anthropology of food, and social movements, and for those interested in GM foods.” — Alison Elizabeth Lee, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

The Struggle for Maize deals with the resilience of corn as a crop and commodity and as a cultural practice, despite the challenges presented by a globalized economy that has introduced GMO corn varieties into Mexico. Depending on one's point of view, GMO may have accrued some economic benefits here and there in the country (but certainly not in San José Miahuatlán), but the agricultural, social, and environmental harms it has presented, Fitting argues, outweigh those benefits. And her book is successful in showing that, and thus is an important contribution to that ongoing debate.” — Sterling Evans, H-Environment, H-Net Reviews

“[A] timely, well-researched and extremely readable book . . . Fitting has intervened with an incisive critique of conventional agricultural development in Mexico, specifically showing how the discourse of scientific expertise is used to discredit other kinds of knowledge and equally valid concerns about the cultural effects of transgenic crops. The Struggle for Maize—a snapshot of the state of the agriculture/development debate in Mexico and a brilliant gathering together of literature on the topic—stands as both a corrective and a rebuke to such dismissals and exclusions.” — Alice Brooke Wilson, Human Ecology

“[T]his is a very good piece of work, with quite interesting analyses both of the contemporary corn debates and the current form of the Mexico’s approaches to rural communities of the lives of rural small farmers in Mexico into the twenty first century. It is a strong contribution to a body of research that, as a whole, provides a very compelling case study of the impact of policy and the strategies of the people that are affected by it.” — Kathleen Musante DeWalt, A Contracorriente

“Working across scale and over time, The Struggle for Maize provides a multidimensional perspective on the GM corn debates, which Fitting effectively demonstrates are about much more than crop varieties. . . . The Struggle for Maize succeeds at coalescing a wide array of perspectives and data around the central issue of the role of corn agriculture in Mexico. With Fitting’s engaging and accessible writing style, the pages turn easily even as they deliver dense and stimulating content.“ — Eric Casler, Rural Sociology

“Fitting has written an insightful book that urges us to ponder the future of farming in and beyond Mexico. Its fresh take on getting to the background history of the food on our plates will be of use to those interested in food safety, food policy and food security, as well as to scholars of labour, peasant studies and the history of Mexico.” — Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Journal of Latin American Studies

“Elizabeth Fitting’s book is an important and lucid contribution to understanding the latest turn in Mexico’s long debate over its food system, cultural identity, and national economy...No other analysis presents the national debate about transgenic maize and its political and cultural contexts with the acuity of Fitting’s book.”  — Stephen Brush, American Anthropologist

“Anthropologist Elizabeth Fitting use maize (corn) as a fruitful lens...for understanding the sometimes contradictory and layered meanings of peasants’ lived experiences...The stories told of women and men in the second part stand out as a hallmark of the text." — Robert J. Wengronowitz, Agriculture and Human Values

“Elizabeth Fitting’s work on maize in Mexico presented in this book is an excellent contribution to a deeper understanding of past and present issues in rural Mexico.” — Kirsten Appendini, Journal of Agrarian Change

"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: com, 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.” — Yoly Zentella, Journal of Third World Studies

"This ethnography is alive with possibility and is written to make it readable and compelling for undergraduate and graduate classes and for many kinds of students, scholars, and audiences. Fitting is a master at connecting dots, putting pieces together, linking here and there, this and that, and listening to the world in ways that upend the given commonsense about industry and agriculture." — Peter Benson, Ethnohistory

The Struggle for Maize is an important book about a crucial topic, the debate over the dissemination of genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico, the crop’s biological center of origin. The debate is significant because the more the modern varieties of corn become disseminated, the more biological diversity is lost, as that diversity depends on the traditional corn varieties cultivated by peasants. Elizabeth Fitting gives us an excellent account of the various positions in the GM corn debate and the connections between international processes and local Mexican communities.” — Gerardo Otero, editor of Food for the Few: Neoliberal Globalism and Biotechnology in Latin America

“Through the case of Mexican maize, Elizabeth Fitting brings fresh insights and sharp analysis to bear on two of the most important and controversial issues in contemporary development studies: the politics of food and GM technology. All of those who are interested in the politics of food and food sovereignty, knowledge, and technology in Mexico and beyond, especially in the context of raging debates about persistent food crises and the future of the peasantry, should read this brilliant book.” — Saturnino M. Borras Jr., co-editor of Transnational Agrarian Movements: Confronting Globalization


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Elizabeth Fitting is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Tables ix

Acknowledgments xi

List of Abbreviations xv

Introduction: The Struggle for Mexican Maize 1

Part I: Debates 33

1. Transgenic Maize and Its Experts 35

2. Corn and the Hybrid Nation 75

Part II: Livelihoods 117

3. Community and Conflict 120

4. Remaking the Countryside 155

5. From Campesinos to Migrant and Maquila Workers? 197

Conclusion 230

Appendix: Producer Interviews, 2001–2002 239

Notes 249

Glossary 265

Bibliography 271

Index 293
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4956-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4938-9
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