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 water—or 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 goods—about 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 farmers?
To answer the first question, let's start by considering so-called phytosanitary problems—put 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 crops—as 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 crops.
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 U.S. farmers.
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 U.S. goods.
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