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The nutritional impact of rural modernization: Strategies for smallholder survival in Mexico

B. Suárez, D. Barkin, B. DeWalt, M. Hernández, and R. Rosales

The last few years have witnessed a deterioration in living standards in Mexico. The economic crisis began in 1976 with the first devaluation of the peso; since then it has increasingly led to the immiserization of many Mexicans. With the "maxi-devaluation" of 1982 and some of the harshest austerity measures applied by any government in Latin America, average real incomes are now below the levels of the mid-1960s. The research results reported here are about the economic impact on rural smallholders in Puebla. To put these results into perspective, a brief review of the historical context of the economic, food, and nutrition situation of Mexico is warranted.

Agricultural and nutritional conditions in historical perspective

Beginning in 1935, the Mexican people enjoyed 40 years of improving nutritional standards together with rising real incomes. Food became increasingly available, in spite of high population growth, as a result of the successful (if somewhat fitful) implementation of the agrarian reform programme of the Revolution and the sustained programme of public investments in irrigation. Social services - education and medical care - also were gradually expanded to include significant segments of the rural population, although government spending was substantially lower than in other countries in the region. One manifestation of these changes was a fall in infant mortality (from 180 to 75 per 1,000 live births between 1940 and 1970) and an increase in life expectancy (from 40 to 59 years during the same period). School attendance increased and literacy rose from 43% to 76% of the population over the age of 15 years. These trends were accompanied by the modernization of the country's productive apparatus and its increasing integration into the world economy.

From a nutritional standpoint, food consumption and availability steadily improved: average per capita consumption (measured in kilograms) increased by more than 1.6% a year between 1950 and 1965; consumption of animal products increased even more rapidly (2.7% a year), reflecting the formation of a middle class who at last could afford such items. It was generally agreed that the benefits of this expansion were broadly spread among all segments of the population, even while the concentration of income polarized society further [1].

In spite of these advances, the country still suffered from serious problems in the area of nutrition and social services. The latest available income and expenditure survey from 1977 reported that, during a period when personal income reached a historic high (and one that has not been attained since 1977), 35% of the households received less than the monthly minimum salary of US$120. These households were concentrated among the small farmers and landless workers in the rural areas and among the "informal" sectors (commerce and personal services) in the urbanized parts of the country. In 1979 the National Institute of Nutrition reported that as many as 19 million persons (28% of the population) suffered from malnutrition; two-thirds of these lived in rural areas. Because of this, data on food availability must be disaggregated by socio-economic strata and by region.

Infant and juvenile mortality data are among the best indirect measurements of the continuing problems of poverty. Infant mortality continued to fall from 75 per 1,000 in 1970 to perhaps 50 in 1980; this is still high when compared to other countries with lower per capita income levels, such as Malaysia and Paraguay. Mexico acknowledges the seriousness of the problem in its own analyses: in 1985 the president reported that the lack of food and other problems related to nutrition was the sixth most important cause of infant mortality. Thus, in spite of the impressive improvements in aggregate statistical measurements of welfare, history has not been particularly generous to the lower segments of Mexico's population, and this shows up even in the short term. Between 1980 and 1984 UNICEF reported that the rate of infant mortality rose 10% to 55 per 1,000, and this deterioration was certainly concentrated among the least fortunate groups in Mexico.

The disparities underscore the deep-rooted inequalities that persist and are growing in Mexico. Recent mortality varied by region from 44 to 265 per 1,000 for children five to nine years old, with the tropical south substantially worst off, reflecting significant regional differences in economic and social structures; rural populations engaged in agriculture were at a substantial disadvantage when compared to other groups. Even among agricultural populations, marked differences are worthy of note. When juvenile mortality is analysed by region and type of land tenure within the rural population, the beneficiaries of rural land reform (ejidatarios) were significantly better off than other groups (R. Wood, unpublished observations, 1987). An explanation for this finding is that wage earners are the most deprived of all of Mexico's rural dwellers. We might also add that the ejidatarios are most likely to have been engaged in subsistence farming in addition to whatever other activities they might have been doing, thus guaranteeing a minimum supply of food to their households. The study also revealed that juvenile mortality is high in areas that have a high predominance of minifundia (very small farms).

These data clearly show the biases in Mexico's economic growth in the period leading up to the onset of the crisis. At the beginning of the crisis a substantial proportion of the population was on the margin of, or below, the subsistence level. According to the 1970 agricultural census (the last one to be tabulated), more than 72% of farm households could be placed in this category [2].

Initially, the crisis hit agricultural production relatively lightly. While the economy as a whole stagnated or even declined, the agricultural sector managed to grow at 1.8% a year between 1982 and 1985; this was the result of favourable climatic conditions and the continuing undervaluation of the peso, which stimulated production of crops for export. Ironically, the official austerity programmes also contributed to this growth by strictly limiting the ability of the bureaucracy to intervene in the countryside, thus freeing farmers to make their own decisions as to the most beneficial way to work their land. As a result, the minority of farmers with their own resources or access to those of others (or the banks) could dedicate their efforts to more profitable crops, which were most likely to be for export. Many of the more numerous small farmers also reacted by planting small parcels to maize and other subsistence crops for their own use because of their limited ability to find jobs or sufficient income to finance family needs.

Thus, both cash earnings (for commercial farmers) and the production of subsistence crops (by small farmers) increased because of the polarized rural social structure. In 1986, however, this unusual behaviour was reversed as declining economic incentives combined with bad weather to produce negative growth. Even during the period of relative prosperity, not all farmers benefited alike. Agricultural exports increased dramatically: from 1981 to 1983 the percentage of exports represented by these items grew by 70%, from 10% to 17%, and they have continued their upward path, climbing 15% in 1985 and 66% in 1986 - this latter figure in spite of a global decline of 2.2% in agricultural output.

Basic food production also rose during the period 1982-1985, although real prices deteriorated. The numerous small farmers who produced enough for all or part of their own needs were obliged to intensify their cultivation efforts to assure a minimum supply of basic foods for themselves and their animals, which are viewed as a form of emergency savings. This explains the reported increases in basic food production, even when the government crop purchasing agency reported no significant increases in grain purchases. Thus the crisis has probably affected substantial parts of the rural population less unfavourably than it has the poor in urban areas. The ability to improve family welfare by eschewing commercial farming has been realized by some smallholder agricultural communities, while others have taken advantage of the incentives for export to improve their position.

This analysis is further confirmed by aggregate economic data. Non-wage incomes in agriculture, which go primarily to small farmers, increased substantially faster than national income (8.8% versus 6.1% during 1982-1984). This improvement contrasts sharply with the real decline of 32% in the wages of the growing mass of rural workers who must hire themselves out to survive or to supplement their farm production; this fall in wage income occurred in spite of the faster increase in numbers of wage workers in agriculture than in the economy as a whole (1 % versus 0.8% from 1981 to 1985). It is also pertinent to note that wage levels in agriculture are significantly lower than the national average and have fallen in relation to the average: in 1981 they were 40% of the national average while in 1984 they were 35%, which actually represents a reduction of more than 30% in real purchasing power. Real wages deteriorated even further in 1984-1987.

Thus, we conclude that the crisis and the structural changes that accompanied it have had a differential impact among the various groups in rural Mexico. The most favoured groups are the commercial farmers, who have seen the prices for their products decontrolled on internal markets while restrictions on their export activities have been greatly relaxed. Small farmers with land have also been able to defend themselves by increasing production for their own consumption, as well as for the market when they could overcome the barriers imposed by lack of credit and other supports. Improvements for these two groups can in no way compensate for the majority of rural workers and farmers, however, who cannot support themselves with their own resources and must enter the job market if they are to survive.

Study communities and methods

Field research was conducted in communities in two municipalities of the state of Puebla. Both are located on a plateau that varies in altitude from 1,000 to 1,650 metros. On the average, the region receives between 850 and 950 mm of rainfall each year. The ejido San Miguel y Contla consists of two small villages inhabited by 648 persons in 108 families. Of these families, 67 had rights to ejido land. The other community, Tzicatlán, was much larger, with 437 families and approximately 2,600 persons. Of these families, 35 had rights to ejido land, 250 had rights to communal lands, and 152 were without land. Agriculture is still the predominant activity in both communities.

These communities were chosen because they are located in an area that is rapidly undergoing the transition from subsistence to commercial farming. Tzicatlán has been involved in cash-crop production for several years, first growing peanuts and more recently producing sorghum as a commercial crop. Farmers in San Miguel y Contla have continued primarily to grow maize. The purpose of our research was to evaluate the impact of a change to cashcrop production on the producers' welfare [3]. Similar change has been proceeding on a large scale throughout Mexico during the past 20 years. Producers with their own resources or the ability to borrow from others have replaced basic-food-crop production with commercial crops destined for the more affluent groups within Mexico and for export. Even small landholders with marginal access to resources have participated in the process, as official price and credit policy combined with biases in the national agricultural research programme to discriminate systematically against basic food production [4].

Our research used a combination of ethnographic and survey methods. Teams of agronomists, social scientists, and nutritionists lived and participated in the activities of the two communities for approximately three months during the period of June-August 1986. Interview schedules covering household demographics, farming methods, financial and technical assistance available, employment and other income sources, and health status were conducted with a small sample of families in each community. Nutritionists gathered anthropometric data on children in the communities and did 24-hour recalls to determine family consumption patterns [4]. This was complemented by information gathered on the pathways by which foods entered the household, including items produced in the communities, wild foods collected in the region, and those that were purchased.

Results of the field work

One of the most striking findings, together with the productive transformations, was a profound sense of mistrust among the smallholders. Many of the individuals who were interviewed expressed an understanding of the riskiness for their own families of their decision to borrow money and obtain other inputs to permit them to move in the direction of commercial production; this was all the more serious because of the marginal nature of their contribution to regional output. Many considered that they had to continue planting cash crops to attempt to liquidate the debts they had accumulated during past years of commercial farming. They were well aware of the monopolistic control by the government over inputs and over markets for their production, and spoke with some knowledge about the influence of international markets on local conditions. In spite of these problems, many continued to search for new opportunities, new sources of support, and new products that would help them to expand their commercial production and perhaps help to improve their economic status. The changes that many had made in their production practices were testimony to the ability of this group to shift rapidly as a result of changing conditions [4].

The study conducted in Puebla confirmed the finding of mistrust we detected elsewhere in Mexico. The farmers systematically searched for mechanisms to defend themselves against the risks of marketing and their own proletarianization [5]. Perhaps the most striking finding in our field studies was the creativity of the population in developing new strategies to strengthen that part of their economy oriented toward subsistence production by participating in commercial activities that have important side benefits. For example, for producers in Tzicatlán, commercial sorghum production yielded sufficient government credit for farmers also to sow basic food crops and to increase the forage available for their animals. A large proportion of our sample planted small parcels of land in basic food crops (maize, beans, squash), in spite of their doubtful economic returns, as a means of assuring some minimum part of their livelihood. They subsidized this production with income or credits from their other activities, in some cases labouring as undocumented workers in the United States. This determination to grow staple food crops was demonstrated consistently in these communities as well as others we studied In 1984.

The move toward commercial crops among some of the producers has not led to a deterioration in living standards, as might have been predicted, because they continued to grow some traditional crops. Furthermore, the monopolistic markets and inflationary situation in which these smallholders operate has made the cultivation of basic food crops quite logical, if not profitable, because of the considerable difference between the price at which they can sell their crops and the cost of purchasing the foods on local markets.

In 1979 most adults in rural areas were suffering from average consumption levels that did not provide the daily minimum of 2,300 calories and 62 9 of protein. To make matters even worse, in the most disadvantaged regions the children were the ones who suffered the greatest nutritional deprivation [6]. As the situation deteriorated even further with the deepening of economic crisis in the 1980s, not only did consumption levels decline absolutely, but food substitutions further aggravated the quality of diets among both lower- and middle-class families. Given the decision of many small producers to continue to plant some food for their own subsistence, there was some reason to expect that these farmers have fared better than other Mexicans in combating pressures to reduce living standards. We examined this hypothesis in the context of the process of structural change in production in the two communities studied.

Nutritional changes resulting from changes in production

Although the communities have many similarities, the development process in the region has affected them differently. Beginning with the quantitative aspects, the community with greater commercial production, Tzicatlán, has the advantage of being able to purchase its foods less expensively because of its proximity to a larger regional market. This results in Tzicatlán having a higher per capita consumption of meat, for example. Perhaps the most significant qualitative difference is the greater importance of hunting and gathering and of home production of fruits and vegetables in the diets of the people in San Miguel y Contla. In Tzicatlán, the people have lost this custom.

In spite of the differences between the communities, we did not find better nutritional levels In Tzicatlán. An important indicator of their relative position is the well-being of the preschoolers who were examined by the nutritionists. Although the number of subjects was limited, the results were consistent with those of numerous studies conducted in a broad range of communities in central Mexico by the National Institute of Nutrition.

We found that a higher proportion of the youngsters suffered from some degree of undernutrition in Tzicatlán, based on measurements of weight for age using US (National Center for Health Statistics) median values (54.6% versus 33.3%). Similarly, stunting (height for age less than 95% of standard), an indicator of chronic undernutrition, was more prevalent in that community, affecting 63% of the preschoolers in comparison with 50% in San Miguel y Contla. On measurements of weight for height, an indicator of current nutritional status, the communities seem to be similar.

Thus we can conclude that overall, more pre-school children appeared to have suffered substantial nutritional stress in the community that had moved more rapidly toward commercial agriculture. At the time of the study, however, acute undernutrition (as measured by low weight for current height) was less prevalent and was not a major problem in either community. These results are similar to those of an earlier study in other parts of Mexico [7].

The other nutritional indicators that we examined confirmed this picture. An analysis of current diets suggested that in general people were eating sufficient food to satisfy basic needs for calories and protein, but that substantial deficiencies existed with regard to other nutrients (table 1). The comparison of adults with children clearly demonstrated that the youngsters receive marginal amounts of food and frequently suffer from substandard diets, especially with regard to caloric intake.

TABLE 1. Dietary standards in the two communities (as percentage of basic requirements)

  Tzicatlán   San Miguel Miguel y Contla
Nutrient Pre-schoolers Adults Pre-schoolers Adults
Calories 74.2 99.2 79.9 101.4
Protein 90.6 86.0 82.8 83.3
Calcium 95.3 161.6 78.5 168.9
Iron 61.2 109.2 49.3 113.0
Thiamine 116.6 163.6 116.7 172.7
Riboflavin 57.3 44.1 50.0 84.6
Niacin 78.1 80.2 66.7 69.0
Vitamin C 19.0 38.2 18.1 65.2
Retinol 24.9 22.6 22.3 41.3

Source: Centro de Ecodesarrollo and National Institute of Nutrition (Mexico), based on direct field research and tables of nutritional standards for adults from the National Research Council (US) and for children from Dr. Ramos Galván of the NIN.

TABLE 2. Consumption standards by type of producer

Type of producer Tzicatlán San Miguel y Contla
Calories Protein (g) Calories Protein (g)
Maize 2,183 56.9 2,295 58.5
Maize and squash 1,978 51.5 2,276 33.0
Sorghuma 1,981 51.5 NA

a. 80% also cultivate maize.
NA = not applicable; sorghum is not cultivated in San Miguel y Contla.
Source: Centro de Ecodesarrollo and National Institute of Nutrition (Mexico). based on direct field research.

Finally, in an effort to relate these findings to the principal theme of our study, we examined the relationship between consumption and type of production (table 2). We confirmed our initial hypothesis that persons engaged in producing their own subsistence foods are likely to be more successful in maintaining their families' nutritional standards. This would strengthen the argument advanced above that land-tenure patterns that give autonomy to smallholders are positively associated with better nutritional and health standards.

In both communities, access to land was a determining factor in assuring the well-being of the family. Just as was suggested by the aggregate figures at the beginning of this article, those without access to land were clearly at a disadvantage in providing for the welfare of their families. The survival strategies in the two communities, however, were quite different. In San Miguel y Contla, maize cultivation was an essential ingredient of survival, while in Tzicatlán, the cash (or credits) received for cultivating sorghum was an important element in subsidizing the cultivation of maize.

In this regard, it is important to note that, as we investigated why sorghum cultivation practices varied so from recommended techniques developed on nearby experimental and demonstration farms, we found that smallholders were determined to increase planting density in order to increase forage yields. The extra forage was retained as non-cash income by the planters, in spite of the fact that it reduced grain yields, because it was perceived as benefiting the lending institutions [8].

The increasing expenditure on snack (''junk") food merits comment. Although this type of food is only beginning to become an important factor in food expenditures and total consumption in these two communities, we found it significantly greater in Tzicatlán. Bottled soft drinks have long been a fixture in rural Mexico, effectively taking the place of potable water, for which public investments have been sorely inadequate. To our surprise, when we surveyed the small stores that sold these two kinds of items, we found that the daily expenditure by school-age children of about 70 pesos a day was far too high for the incomes reported. The growing contribution of these commodities to total energy intakes of young people is matched by the deleterious impact on nutritional status in areas where commercial agriculture is expanding rapidly.


This paper is one result of a study funded by the United Nations University through a grant to the Ecodevelopment Centre of Mexico. The National Institute of Nutrition collaborated on the project. The field work was conducted by students from the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico City, with the participation of students from Cornell University, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Florida.


1. Aspe P. Simund P. eds. The political economy of income distribution in Mexico. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1984.

2. CEPAL. Economía campesina y agriculture empresarial: tipología de productores del agro mexicano. Mexico: Siglo XXI Editores, 1982.

3. Suárez B. Barkin D, DeWalt B. Hernández M, Rosales R. Impacto nutricional del cambio productivo: un estudio del campo mexicano. Mexico City: Centro de Ecodesarrollo, 1987.

4. Barkin D, Suárez B. El fin de la autosuficiencia alimentaria. Mexico: Centro de Ecodesarrollo and Editorial Océano, 1985.

5. Barkin D. Global proletarianization. In: Sanderson S. ed. The Americas in the new international division of labor. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985.

6. Schatan J. Nutrición y crisis en Mexico. Problemas del desarrollo 1985-86;63-64: 139-187.

7. DeWalt B, DeWalt K, Barkin D, Escudero JC. Agricultural modernization and small family welfare: evidence from four Mexican communities. Presented at the annual meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Oaxaca, Mexico, 9-12 April 1987.

8. Mcintyre B. The relationship of socio-economic process to agronomic constraint in a Mexican village. Presented at the meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Oaxaca, Mexico, 9-12 April 1981.


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