From Chapter 17:  Global Claims



My questions are finished. I thank the farmer and close my notebook, ready to leave. But Bruno de la Luz has his own agenda. "I have some questions as well," he announces, turning toward Guillermo Alafita and Olga Haas, two representatives from Monsantoís office in Mexico City, whoíve accompanied me on this visit.

Alafita and Haas are Mexican, but they come from a different world. Both are college-educated, their faces unlined by wind and sun, their clothes neatly pressed. Cellular telephones hang from their belts. They are young, just starting their professional careers, earnest and idealistic. Guillermo studied agronomy, he says, because his countryís greatest social problems are found in its agricultural areas. Both went to work for Monsanto only about a year ago. They wear identical uniforms, brown shirts printed with the words "Campos Unidos; La Siembra de Nuevas Esperanzas" (United Fields; Sowing New Hope). It is the slogan of a Monsanto initiative that mystifies Bruno de la Luz.

The Mexican farmer has listed his questions in a notebook, so as not to forget any. He is polite, but insistent. Why is Monsanto handing out what appear to be gifts? The company has employed two dozen people to travel among small farmers in certain regions of Mexico, offering advice on the best mix of fertilizers, and arranging loans to farmers so that they can buy fertilizer and seeds that promise larger harvests. Monsantoís employees have interceded on farmersí behalf with insurance companies, persuading the companies to pay, as promised, when weather damaged the farmersí crops. Monsanto has even attempted to arrange more reliable markets for corn grown by farmers in remote areas of Chiapas, Mexicoís southernmost state, so that these farmers can be assured of a fair price for their harvest.

Bruno de la Luz can understand why the government might offer such services. But not Monsanto. "Is this a private enterprise, or a non-profit, or what?" he asks.

Guillermo Alafita leans forward in his chair to reply, as though to bridge the space, across ten feet of concrete floor, that separates him from the farmer. Monsanto believes that it can help itself by helping the small farmers of Mexico, he says.

Alafita doesnít bother with the statistics that are the foundation of this argument, though he knows them by heart. Even though Monsantoís seed companies dominate the hybrid seed business in Mexico, they reach only the largest, most prosperous farmers. There remains a vast untapped market, because criollos, grown from a farmerís own harvested seed, account for 80 percent of all the corn grown in the country. These lands are fragmented among two million small farms. Bruno de la Luzís landholdings, at 12 acres, are much larger than most. Campos Unidos is Monsantoís attempt to break into this market.

Some farmers are signing up. "Iíve already talked with about 10 other farmers, and they are motivated, they want change," says Bruno de la Luz . In this community, he says, "we have about 800 ejidatiarios (small-scale farmers who work on land that was confiscated, long ago, from huge haciendas); I think there are about 300 who are looking for alternatives. We want to be able to produce better crops and have a market for our crops."

Those words are music to the ears of Monsanto executives. Their hopes are built on the notion that Mexico need not be any different from Iowa; that farmers, no matter where they live, will spend money for seeds that promise a better crop. All Monsanto has to do is deliver a product that fulfills that promise.

Yet as Guillermo Alifita leaves, and climbs into his truck, ready to visit another farmer, he canít escape nagging doubts about the future of Campos Unidos. His doubts arenít about the programís value to farmers; Alafita is convinced heís doing some good. The problem is, Campos Unidos loses money, and Monsanto isnít a charity.