ForumCooperation Crosses Our
When it comes to agriculture, Mexico has a very difficult row to hoe. As
Alan Riding noted in his bestselling book "Distant Neighbors: A Portrait
of the Mexicans," more than half of Mexican territory is arid and another
third is semiarid. About 50 percent of the land in Mexico is too steep to
cultivate; only about 15 percent is considered good, productive land.
To further darken the picture, there's the question of wateror more
specifically, the lack of water.
According to Riding, the runoff from the Mississippi River alone represents
more water than in all of Mexico's rivers. The determining factor between a
rich farmer and a poor one in Mexico may often be water.
Yet Mexico perseveres, shipping out streams of winter fruits and vegetables
such as oranges, strawberries, melons, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
During the fiscal year that ended in September 1994, Mexico was the United
States' third-largest supplier of agricultural imports. Trailing only Canada
and the European Union, Mexico sold us $2.8 billion worth of goodsabout
11 percent of our total agricultural imports that year.
Of course, traffic on international bridges goes both ways. In fiscal year
1994, Mexico was the United States' fourth-largest agricultural export market,
taking about 9.5 percent of our total agricultural exports that year.
In the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, this flow of goods
both ways across the border is expected to increase substantially.
Considering the level of trade already under way, why do American scientists
work with Mexican counterparts on improving agriculture south of the border? By
cooperating with the Mexicans, aren't we helping create competition for our own
To answer the first question, let's start by considering so-called
phytosanitary problemsput simply, the quality of agricultural goods
finding their way from Mexican farms to our local grocery stores.
One aspect of quality is the presence of chemical residues reflecting the
kind, amount, and timing of chemicals applied during production of the
commodity. Residue tolerance levels are closely regulated in the United States
to protect consumers.
And as fresh produce crosses the border, it could also bring along an exotic
problem in the form of a crop pest or disease.
By cooperating with Mexican scientists in projects to contain such pests,
we're working most efficiently to protect American agriculture against these
problems. It makes more sense, from a scientific and economic standpoint, to
conduct studies on a pest in Mexico, where it is already established, than to
study it under quarantine in the United States, with the concurrent risks
associated with bringing the pest into this country.
Such on-site studies enable us to develop in advance the strategies and
weapons our farmers would need to protect their crops if the pest in question
were to ever cross our border.
Also, just as several of our major crops such as cotton originated south of
the border, so do many of the pests that attack those cropsas well as the
predators that nature has put in place to keep those pests in check.
But too often, as with cotton and the boll weevil, the pest has come to the
United States without its natural enemy. Working with Mexico gives us an
opportunity to find new natural ways to combat some of our most devastating
crop pests without having to rely solely on chemicals.
Mexico also offers a tantalizing array of plant germplasm to explore, again
with great potential to help solve problems faced by American growers of those
Cooperative research with Mexico benefits American farmers in another way,
too. Consider again the trade figures: Mexico bought $4.13 billion worth of
U.S. agricultural goods in 1994. When you add Canada's purchases of $5.25
billion that same year, this means the Mexico-Canada market for U.S.
agricultural goods in 1994 was $9.38 billion.
That's well ahead of our agricultural sales to Western Europe ($7.07
billion) and surpasses even the $9.2 billion in agricultural goods we sold to
Japan, our leading market. Clearly the North American market is a prime one for
By working with our scientific counterparts south of the border, we help
improve Mexican agriculture and boost its contribution to the Mexican economy.
Increases in disposable income in Mexico make it an even better customer for
Turning to the question of competition, we cannot say with absolute
certainty that we're not creating a competitor by helping improve Mexican
agriculture. But we must include our trading partners in technological
development, and Mexico needs to be one of those partners.
We're already reaping rewards from scientific cooperation with the Mexican
agricultural community. One example is the establishment at Tecoman of a winter
nursery for cotton and kenaf under a joint agreement with the Mexican
government and the United States' National Cotton Council. It is a nursery for
use by American federal, private, and university plant breeders.
As time passes, we will see many more benefits from research and education
on both sides of the border.
Floyd P. Horn
Deputy Under Secretary
Research, Education, and Economics
U.S. Department of Agriculture