Looking Back on My Tenure: Miguel Garcia-WinderBy Jan Hogewoning | Mon, 12/21/2020 - 08:34
Q: What have you been doing since leaving the Agriculture Ministry in October?
A: I am still involved with several sectors of agriculture in Mexico, including federal and state governments. Having been in the agricultural field for over 40 years, I continue to write, read, carry out my own analysis and provide advice to different actors of the agricultural sector in Mexico including the Minister of Agriculture when he so requires. I am currently in the nomination process to be Mexico’s next permanent representative at FAO. My understanding is that the executive branch has cleared it and that we are awaiting confirmation from the Senate.
Q: In your resignation letter, you stated that you had not completed your mission as Deputy Minister of Agriculture. What was this mission?
A: In that position, you want to build something. You make progress but due to the complexity of the challenges, there is always something that remains to be done. In my case, for example, we started to promote a national policy for soil management. This was urgently needed. We did the background work and set the basis. I would have liked to see that finished during my tenure. Hopefully, new generations will continue the work, further closing the gap between small landholders and commercial farmers, changing the way we see agriculture to a more value added sector. It is a huge amount of work that involves agriculture, food and the environment.
Mexico has very productive agriculture. However, if you look at how rural areas have been developed over the last 30 to 40 years, the gap between advanced agriculture and small-scale agriculture, particularly in some regions, has broadened. As deputy minister, my primary role was to administer resources for producers and develop public policy to help us to close those gaps. I had to look at what type of public goods we could generate and how we could develop policies that distributed them more effectively with greater impact. The challenge was to see how public goods could be devised to have positive effects on issues such as soil, water, trade and security. When I left the position, my role had shifted to more of a policymaker. We were in conversation with different production chains, defining long-term goals. We looked at things like planting strategies, the necessary seed types, the type of investments producers would need and risk management tools for financing, as well as climatic events.
Q: What is your perspective today on farming subsidies?
A: The most advanced agricultural countries have relied on subsidies in one way or another to protect agriculture. Farmers are critical to a country’s food supply. Likewise, rural populations also tend to be the most vulnerable to catastrophes. In the past, Mexico actually followed recommendations on how to get rid of subsidies. However, we were not able to close the poverty gap, so it would be unwise to continue doing the same thing. The tide needs to turn, to provide new hope. The country has become an agricultural superpower, with a very positive trade balance, big trade partners around the world and significant increases in some product areas. On the other hand, the gap between commercial farming and small producers is socially unsustainable. This is why we need a model for the long term that goes beyond commercial farming and we need to continue to develop ways to directly support farmers, especially small holders.
Q: What challenges did you face in attempting to create the link between farmers and markets?
A: Without a proper link between them, there is little potential for self-sufficiency. It is hard for a segment of small farmers not to rely on government support in some way or another. There are millions of individual success stories around the world of farmers who managed to connect to the market. However, the challenge is how to create the environment so everyone can manage this. Ten years ago, we produced a series of documents where we tried to identify key elements to make this work. They included fairness, justice and fair-trade practices.
We need to continue working very closely with producers and food companies. In the dairy industry, there is a good example called “Proyecto Margaritas”. This is a project by Danone that gathers almost 200 small Mexican dairy producers whose operations the company helped set up. Another example is the Mother Earth project, where berry producers are brought into local markets where their berries can be used to flavor drinks. Of course, there is work to be done to improve infrastructure, logistics and standardization. However, we should also be very careful in how we use non-tariff regulations such as quality standards. Particular rules for products that concern technologies, hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, should not intervene to the point of becoming an obstacle for small farmers. Public investment in the sector will remain, coupled with innovation and research. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) is convinced that the solution lies in innovation.
Q: What role can the growing demand for organic produce play in strengthening opportunities for small producers?
A: The growth of the organic market in the US and Europe has been significant. The Minister of Agriculture is interested in positioning Mexico in that niche. The country has several economic and environmental characteristics that make it a very attractive player. We are next to the biggest organic consumption market in the world. Some small producers are very well-positioned for this, while for others it is not an option. The focus should remain on a wide range of opportunities, not just organic.
Q: How can Mexico become more productive with so many small farms?
A: My position has always been that we need to find a way to make this reality work. Yes, there are inconveniences to small plots. However, I also recognize their importance in maintaining social stability and tranquillity. The key is to work with farmer organizations, bringing all actors into the conversation and seeing how they can be integrated into the value chain. Over time, the government has achieved a good level of dialogue.
One example of a small landholder community that has been very successful is the Miguel Aleman ejido in Chiapas. When you arrive in that community, you are suddenly in another reality. Farmers are small ejiditarios that have come together, not only to produce but to ensure the health, stability and security of the community. They operate over 400ha of bananas, also exporting abroad. When I visited the community, it made me believe there was hope.
There are also some examples in the coffee industry, though coffee is a little bit more socially complex. Then there is the Margarita project, which is not formed by ejiditarios but small-plot farmers. With the assistance of Danone, dairy producers have been able to increase yield, efficiency and sustainability to improve their economic situation.
Q: Should large food companies be forced to source a percentage of their ingredients from small producers?
A: I do not believe in imposition. I believe in dialogue and finding common goals. I know these large companies. If we sit down with them, I know we can find common goals. Small landholders and large companies actually have very similar goals, aimed at the future and welfare of their families, Mexico and its people.
Q: What actions taken by the government have been effective in stopping corruption?
A: Setting an example has been the biggest step. Internally, there have been some changes in rules, regulations and processes. What motivated me to come back to the government was the idea that the resources belong to the people and that there needs to be 100 percent transparency. It took a lot of conversation and negotiations to change the way we were working.
Q: Glyphosate has been at the center of tensions between political and social groups. How do you view the discussion on this herbicide?
A: This has become a very politicized conversation. Some people have very extreme views. By definition, any herbicide, pesticide or insecticide is toxic. We have made mistakes in the past, with DDT as one example. Something similar, in terms of a change in perception, has been happening with glyphosate. If you look closely at the evidence for glyphosate, you will probably come to the conclusion, one way or another, that there are indications that a higher, mismanaged dose could be dangerous for human health and the environment. We have to look for investment and innovation in developing new alternatives. In 10 to 15 years, a new generation will have other sets of pesticides and glyphosate will probably not be one of them. These will be better, more environmentally friendly pesticides. The problem is that we have created an agriculture that is quasi-dependent on products like chemical fertilizer. If we take that away immediately, with no logical process of substitution, we can have five to 10 years of declining production, which would affect our self-sufficiency. I think the conversation should be focused on what new options we can create and how we can accelerate this process.
Q: In a time where segments of the populations are in more economic distress, do you think the government’s austerity push is too dogmatic?
A: I always believe that being dogmatic is a mistake. Yes, the sector needs more money. However, money is not everything. If we force our intellect to do things better, we can achieve more with less. I was always keen on saying I would try to do more with what I had. In the past, the ministry had a lot of resources and there were many cases of mismanagement, too. I know that the Minister of Agriculture is committed to using resources honestly, fighting to eliminate corruption. There is more transparency now regarding who are the beneficiaries of public resources. We started delivering more directly to producers, cutting out the middlemen. Every week, we had to present to the nation how our programs were progressing. That was accountability to a level not seen in Mexico before.
Miguel Garcia-Winder has been active in the agricultural field for over 40 years. He is nominated to be Mexico’s next permanent representative at FAO.