Seven Weeks Since the Departure of Miguel García WinderBy Jan Hogewoning | Mon, 11/23/2020 - 13:50
On Oct. 1, the Undersecretariat of Agriculture, at that moment run by Deputy Minister of Agriculture Miguel García Winder, was officially terminated. The move, announced a few days beforehand by Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Víctor Villalobos, was officially attributed to austerity measures imposed by the government. Earlier in his administration, president López Obrador had already made public his intention to cut the number of undersecretariats in Mexico’s government ministries. Before Oct. 1, García Winder had also already announced that he would be leaving his position. “These have been two very intense years in which I learned a lot. I have always tried to give my best and I leave with my head held high with the satisfaction of having worked honestly,” he said in a personal statement directed to his colleagues and friends. “If I leave a little sad it is because I could not make the change that I would have wanted, but I hope that some seed remains.” The move was considered, including by García Winder himself, as premature. The question is to what extent his vision already had an impact and will continue to shape agricultural policy without him.
As Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Miguel García Winder was a staunch proponent of sustainable agriculture. At the forum EF Agro, which took place in March this year, he stated that one of the biggest challenges for Mexican agriculture was to produce greater volumes while minimizing the cost on natural resources. He declared that agriculture was a causal factor for climate change and a threat to biodiversity. During his tenure, El Financiero writes, García Winder put “sustainability as a central pillar of the government’s agenda, together with productivity and social inclusion.” The question is to what extent sustainability, as in ecological sustainability, collided with auto-sufficiency. During his administration, Lopez Obrador has repeatedly voiced his wish to make Mexico self-sufficient, starting with the small agricultural producers, who make up the majority of the country’s farmers.
In conversation with MBN, Fernando Cruz, Associate Consultant at GCMA, explained the importance of the now defunct undersecretariat. “[Winder] was very relevant in making decisions about organic farming, since the standardization area that seeks to regulate agricultural practices and inputs through the issuance of official standards depended on it,” said Cruz. Apart from heading this policy area, García Winder was also “one of the promoters of the Inter-secretarial Group for Health, Food, Environment and Competitiveness (GISAMAC), which is an effort from various ministries to influence the agroecological management of food production,” Cruz told MBN.
After the announcement of the undersecretariat’s elimination was made, an important player in the sector, the National Agriculture Council (CNA) reacted with condemnation. “The elimination of the Undersecretariat of Agriculture and its functions, which are key to the coordination of plans and programs in the area of food self-sufficiency, goes against the goals of this administration and is opposed to all the efforts made by the Mexican agri-food sector in recent years,” said Bosco de la Vega, President of CNA, in a press release. “The undersecretariat was in charge of product systems that integrate the entire production chain and acted as the cornerstone for the agri-food production strategy in Mexico.” At the time, Villalobos attempted to clarify any confusion about the impact on the ministry’s direction. In a press release, his office stated: “We maintain our objectives to advance the agenda related to a more sustainable, productive and inclusive agriculture, in accordance with the determination of the federal government to retake decisive leadership in the sector.” While the undersecretariat and its leader would disappear, “the functions and substantial activities assigned to it would be maintained with an effective structure of operation and attention to producers.”
The departure of Winder may not be as controversial as that of Victor Toledo, who resigned from his position of head of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) in September after a leaked audio recording caught him criticizing the government administration. One of his criticisms, MBN wrote at the time, was directed specifically toward Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Víctor Villalobos and his intention to withdraw the government’s plan to investigate the effects of the herbicide glyphosate. During 2019 and 2020, SEMARNAT has repeatedly denied imports of the herbicide from the US, pointing to its detrimental effects on human health and the environment. SEMARNAT even announced its intention to fully ban its use in Mexico by 2024. In August, Victor Villalobos was accused by the Social Movement for Land (MST) of opposing the ban and supporting herbicide imports. When Toledo chose to resign, there were some suggestions that friction between him and the head of the Ministry of Agriculture may have been part of the cause.
While Winder supports more ecologically sustainable agriculture, that moves away from industrial methods that lean heavily on artificial chemicals, he also stated in an an interview with Pie de Pagina on August 31, that the industry would not be able to instantly ban glyphosate. This he stated, could lead to a “shortage in agricultural production”. Instead, Winder said, the country needs “a way of gradually reducing these pesticides, or particularly glyphosate, and proposing that they carry out a process of developing new and less harmful types of products."
MBN has not seen evidence that would suggest there was a link between the ideological leanings of Winder and his departure. More so, the criticism that has been directed towards the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) and the government as a whole has been more focused on 'ill-advised' austerity measures and how they are impacting important processes in the sector.
Seven weeks after, it is still too early to gauge what the impact of Winder’s departure and his office's termination may have on the industry. “We consider that the ideological approach and most of the work that had been carried out with the former Deputy Minister García Winder has been maintained. However, the period is still too short to perceive major changes in the agricultural sector,” Javier Valdes, Director General of Syngenta México, told MBN last week. Fernando Cruz agrees that in terms of the ministry’s agenda, not much has changed. “The main planning, regulation, and supervision activities … were not eliminated, they were simply reassigned, with staff and budget, to other areas, such as the Undersecretary of Food and Competitiveness.” However, it is worth noting that Dr. Garcia Winder was and remains a well-respected leader in the area and had a considerable level of authority. The question is whether that leadership in these areas can be sustained.
Both Valdés and Cruz agree that inter-sectorial collaboration will remain crucial to advancing sustainability and self-sufficiency among farmers. “To achieve objectives in terms of productivity and profit among producers, the private initiative and the authorities have to work together,” said Valdes. “At Syngenta, one of the main axes of our Good Growth Plan is to establish alliances that allow a better future for small producers and thus add value to the production chain.” Fernando Cruz calls for more dialogue, saying it is necessary to have spaces that, in the light of scientific and technical evidence, “develop better regulations that guarantee the sustainability of natural resources and food production.”