Searching for a new Mexican “rice miracle”

 Adriana Varón Molina   |  

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) brought insecurity to the doorsteps of Mexican farmers. Flooding the market with U.S. rice, it drove more than 18,000 rice growers out of business, causing a drastic decline in production. Today, the government and the country’s rice growers’ association aims to raise national production to 360,000 tons by 2018 (nearly double the amount expected in 2016) and break the dominance of US rice in the Mexican market. It will depend on three things: (1) a strengthened rice sector, (2) support from the federal government, and (3) the success of recently released improved rice varieties.

ARNULFO HERNÁNDEZ, Gustavo Romero, and Edel Chancanul, after dedicating much of their lives to farming, suffered the effects of NAFTA. But now they feel confident that Mexico´s rice sector will regain its strength. (Photo: CIAT)

ARNULFO HERNÁNDEZ, Gustavo Romero, and Edel Chancanul, after dedicating much of their lives to farming, suffered the effects of NAFTA. But now they feel confident that Mexico´s rice sector will regain its strength. (Photo: CIAT)

At sundown, one fateful day, Salvador García was checking to make sure his equipment would be ready for planting the next morning. But then something happened to shatter the routine of this farmer from El Mante, an important rice-growing area in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. A group of eight men turned up at his farm, beat him unconscious, and took him to a solitary highway—the same one traveled by clandestine vehicles carrying adventurers to the U.S. border in search of the American dream and by feared drug traffickers. He was eventually released after a ransom was paid.

That was five years ago, but Salvador still remembers exactly what happened, moment by moment, during his 10 days of captivity. He was lucky enough to get home alive, unlike some other farmers from this region.

Although traumatized psychologically, Mr. García had the fortitude to get back on his feet, just as he did years ago when tons of cheap rice from the U.S. began to flood the Mexican market, causing local production to collapse. Our rice sector was at fault, he says, for not being prepared to cope with NAFTA, the agreement among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that came into effect during 1994. To make matters worse, the Mexican government lowered subsidies for rice growers. Disease outbreaks took a further toll on production.

According to the Mexican Rice Council (CMA, its acronym in Spanish), which represents 13 private companies and 11 state agricultural councils, Mexico had 25,000 rice growers and 74 related businesses before NAFTA. Afterward, the numbers fell to 6,200 growers and 20 businesses.

Many farmers switched to other crops, such as sorghum, sugarcane, and maize, or to livestock. Some decided to leave the country.

“The most critical year for Mexico´s rice sector was 2011, when the country imported 89% of its rice supplies from the United States and Asia,” says Luis Bueno, CMA´s vice president.

Turning the page
The plan to reinforce Mexico´s rice sector included a decision in 2005 to link with the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR); creation of the Consortium for Rice Research and Development (Cindearroz); and collaboration with the National Institute for Research on Forestry, Agriculture, and Livestock (INIFAP).

Eduardo Graterol, FLAR´s executive director, explains that the joint efforts of the Fund´s 17 member countries “have led to the development of a new model for high productivity involving improved agronomic practices, which has been replicated in Mexico with encouraging results.”

Every year, FLAR sends about 250 improved lines from its headquarters at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Cali, Colombia, for performance testing in Mexico. Since 2012, FLAR has also developed with CMA a program for training technicians and farmers in improved rice agronomy.

Back from the brink of extinction
In the most difficult period for Mexico´s rice production, it became obvious that the country needed a new generation of improved rice varieties to be developed by INIFAP, using germplasm provided by FLAR.

As a result of this collaboration, growers now have two aces up their sleeve for competing with imported rice: INIFLAR Riego and INIFLAR Riego Temporal, new varieties that have long, thin grains like those of rice from the U.S. and Asia but that better match the quality preferences of Mexican consumers.

“We need to restore national production for the benefit of local consumers,” says Fernando Flores Lui, director general of INIFAP. “These varieties might be the precursors to a new stage in production, like the revolution created long ago by IR8, which is called Milagro Filipino (Filipino Miracle) in Mexico and is still preferred by some consumers.”

The new varieties resulting from a public-private partnership have already started gaining ground in Mexico. This year, they were sown on more than 3,000 hectares and will enter the Mexican market for the first time.

Arnulfo Hernández, Edel Chancanul, and Gustavo Romero, farmers in El Junca in the municipality of Palizada, Campeche State, in the Yucatán Peninsula, have planted INIFLAR Riego and INIFLAR Riego Temporal in their fields and are waiting for the first harvest, which they believe could reach 10 tons per hectare.

Like Mr. García, these three producers were thrown off course by NAFTA, rice diseases, and the resulting drop in production. Mr. Hernández had to sell his farm machinery as scrap. Some of it still lies covered with mold and weeds along the roads bordering his field.

For Mr. Chancanul, the lifesaver was to stop growing rice for a time, while Mr. Romero decided to try sorghum and convert part of his 100 hectares into a pasture.

Today, these farmers hope that Mexican-grown rice can make a comeback.

Federal government support
In parts of Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas, which once had green rice fields, today stand oil palms. The federal government, through the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries, and Food (SAGARPA), will try to entice the farmers back to growing rice through financial incentives: 3,000 Mexican pesos (about USD 162) for each hectare they plant to long-grained rice under irrigation and 1,500 pesos (about USD 81) per hectare of rainfed rice.

“With these agroincentives, we hope to reach smallscale producers with up to 20 hectares, helping them purchase certified seed of the improved varieties that the rice sector needs, and raise production to 360,000 tons by 2018,” says José Homero Melis Cota, director general for agricultural promotion with SAGARPA.

The program will be on offer for three years in the states of Campeche, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Tabasco, and Veracruz.

The new varieties, according to Mario Torres, director of Cindearroz, are resistant to rice blast and the rice hoja blanca (white leaf) virus, which is transmitted by the insect pest sogata (Tagosodes orizicolus), and show high yield potential. They are early-maturing, in less than 130 days, enabling producers to harvest in less time, save on water, and lower their production costs.

Unlike Mr. Hernández, and Mr. Chancanul, Mr. Romero, Salvador García wasn´t able to sow the new varieties this year. For the last eight years, he has grown Milagro Filipino. But, he has seen the new varieties and likes them. Next year, he´ll try his luck with INIFLAR Riego and INIFLAR Riego Temporal.

Mexico´s 6,200 rice growers hope that the rice sector can witness a new miracle, which will not come from the Philippines this time, but from the joint efforts of a sector that believes in the future.

Ms. Adriana Varón Molina is a communications coordinator at CIAT in Colombia.

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