Lauren E. Baker: Corn meets maize—food movements and markets in Mexico
Corn Meets Maize is a compelling look at the complex and contested terrain of the global food system through the interconnections between people and the various cultural and ecological worlds they inhabit. The book focuses on the ways that local food networks in Mexico are shaped by neoliberal policies and the geographical imaginations of place-based resistance efforts. The narrative weaves together the personal experiences and detailed research of Lauren Baker, an activist-scholar who spent many years working with sustainable food movements in Toronto, Canada. Baker’s analysis describes Mexican food networks as examples of biocultural agrifood relations, a concept she develops to explain the interconnections among ecology, culture and local/global politics. To frame her analysis, Baker contrasts corn and maize as symbolic concepts that embody historical context along with future possibilities. Corn is used to symbolize corporate led industrial agriculture and the commoditization of food; while maize symbolizes agricultural and food practices that are embedded in experiential knowledge, culinary traditions, and local economic exchanges. Through the intersections of the two, Baker explores the fluid and contested nature of globalization, its impact on local places and the possibilities of local food networks to establish a more democratic and sustainable food system.
The book begins with an overview of key scholarly debates surrounding the local food networks in Mexico. In Chapter One, Baker examines these debates with a focus on the tensions that have emerged within food systems scholarship. She explores the emergence of food sovereignty, in response to food security, as a discourse and practice that engages structural food system challenges in the fight for local control of decision-making and resources. Baker also addresses the tensions between biodiversity and biotechnology by discussing how the introduction of genetically modified corn galvanized a broad based response from campesino farmers and eaters across the country. Mexico, she explains, has been the centre of food crop diversity with maize as a focal point for social and cultural movements. This relates to a further tension, the distancing between culture and nature, illustrated through the deep interconnections between maize and people. Chapter Two explores the political economy of maize in Mexico by expanding on the discussion surrounding the coevolution of maize and campesino farmers. As neoliberalism penetrated the country, small-scale maize farms were pressured into fruit and vegetable production for export. The incursion of cheap corn into Mexican markets further threatened farmer livelihood and maize agrodiversity. These realities illustrate the differences between maize and corn and the dramatic changes in Mexican cultural, spiritual, political and ecological life over the past two decades. Through describing these issues and overlapping tensions, Baker sets the framework to explore the challenges and possibilities of food networks and the way that local, place-based initiatives are connected through markets, civil society and the state.
The following chapters focus on three initiatives in defense of maize that confront neoliberal policy, corporate concentration and dietary transformation. The case studies serve as different examples of food networks, each with distinct approaches to addressing food sovereignty, agrodiversity conservation, and the nature-culture divide. The first case, Nuestro Maíz is a regional development project supporting sustainable livelihoods for campesino farmers through promoting agroecological production methods and new market opportunities. The Nuestro Maíz initiative illustrates the way that neoliberal policies led to new economic strategies that included oppositional politics and a focus on farmer livelihood. The second case, Itanoní Tortillería is a family run restaurant that supports agroecological maize production and educates urban eaters about the regional diversities of maize. Baker describes the development of relationships that transformed the production-consumption chain into a “full circle economic activity” (p. 101). The final case, the Michoacán Centre for Agribusiness (MCA) coordinates a variety of initiatives rooted in agricultural, economic, and community development. The initiatives focus on developing regional and national supply chains and supporting agroecological and organic maize production. MCA was successful in developing an alliance with the state to create new market opportunities and link dispersed civil society efforts. The three case studies represent shortened tortilla supply chains that link farmers and eaters while simultaneously reflecting and contesting neoliberalism. Baker describes the initiatives’ examples of new and emerging biocultural agrifood relations “that re-embed the food economy within democratic social relations and ecological production practices” (p. 73).
Taking a trans-disciplinary approach, Baker’s Corn Meets Maize is a timely contribution to the scholarly literature in food studies and will have an impact on multiple fields within the social sciences from geography and sociology to anthropology and political science. It will also have significant implications for practitioners involved in global and local food system work. Its major contribution will be its contextual analysis of neoliberalism and the possibilities for food initiatives to transgress the alternative-conventional binary. Framing local food networks as biocultural agrifood relations emphasizes the ways that the global and local are inextricably connected and illustrates how social movements play an important role in the emergence of new food regimes (Friedmann 2005). Baker describes the way that social movements can create “political spaces that engage people in democratic practices that occur as part of everyday life and simultaneously impact policy at various levels” (p. 11). The theoretical discussions and case study analysis illustrate the possibilities for politics to be infused into everyday practice that both reflect and contest the neoliberal context. The analysis of the case studies also brings to light the agency of a broad array of actors, both human and non-human, emphasizing the way that maize has become an “agricultural agent” within the food networks. Corn Meets Maize would be an excellent addition to graduate courses on political ecology, social movements, and food studies and an enlightening read for anyone interested in food politics.
- Friedmann, H. 2005. From colonialism to green capitalism: social movements and emergence of food regimes. New Directions in the Sociology of Global Development, Research in Rural Sociology and Development 11: 229–267.Google Scholar