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Originally published Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Mexico | "What you have to do is fool your stomach"

Mexicans feel the pain of record corn prices every day when they buy a staple of the national diet, the corn tortilla. Tortilla inflation has been...

Chicago Tribune

MEXICO CITY — Mexicans feel the pain of record corn prices every day when they buy a staple of the national diet, the corn tortilla. Tortilla inflation has been severe enough to send citizens to the streets in protest.

But as Domitila Cruz perused a counter full of chicken parts at the Churubusco market, she was about to feel other hardships of the corn boom even if she didn't realize it.

While corn farmers in Illinois and elsewhere welcome the surging prices, Mexican farmers and ranchers are absorbing higher costs to feed corn to cattle, hogs and chickens. That means higher prices for milk, eggs and meat.

The owner of the chicken stand said prices had gone up about 25 percent since last fall. Cruz, a housekeeper, said she often substitutes beans for meat to feed her husband and two young children.

"What you have to do is fool your stomach," Cruz said.

Mexicans have found it hard to swallow the high costs of a crop at the center of their cuisine and their culture. Legend had it that the early Mexicans were made partly of corn.

Mexico produced a record harvest in 2007, about 25 million tons of primarily white corn. That production should have kept supply high and prices stable.

But corn prices in the U.S. have hit record levels thanks in large part to demand for ethanol, a biofuel promoted by the U.S. government. Because the price of Mexican corn is formally tied to the price of U.S. corn, the aftershocks are felt here. And much of animal feed comes from yellow corn, which Mexico imports from the U.S.

Mexican agriculture officials estimate that about 30 percent of the country's corn is used as a raw material for food production, such as fattening cattle.

While higher fuel prices and other factors also are at play, Mexico's National Poultry Breeders Union estimates that increases in corn prices have been a key force behind a 34 percent rise in production costs since last year.

The National Association of Dairy Producers said the corn-price increase has caused layoffs and lower production.

The crisis has grown so severe that executives in the Mexican agriculture sector convened a summit last week where they begged government officials for help.

"The days of cheap food have ended," said Juan Antonio Pedroza, president of a trade association of Mexican feed producers. "The social impact will be tremendous."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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