Corn farming in Iowa is big business[GALLO/GETTY]

The farm state of Iowa is to be
the first big test of voter approval for US presidential candidates competing in a series of primaries across the country.

A major campaign issue in the state is whether the candidates will continue to support billions of dollars in government subsidies for Iowa corn farmers - to help them with their costs of growing corn.

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"It's important for us to make sure that our farmers are able to stay on the farm and raise the crops that we need to have a secure source of food, and so I believe in supports that will allow us to do that," Mitt Romney, one of the leading Republican presidential candidates, said in a recent television campaign advertisement.

However, George Naylor, an Iowa farmer, receives subsidies every year and he feels they are a destructive, protectionist farm-policy measure that rarely benefits the small American farmer.

"I would say that presidential candidates generally don't understand agricultural policy," he told Al Jazeera.

"It's just a crazy system to have farm subsidies."

'Conquest by food'

The US subsidises the corn industry by about $5bn a year.

Candidates in US elections are always
keen to court farmers' votes
[EPA]

The real beneficiaries of the subsidy system are the big multinational corporations, who buy corn and then turn it into products they can sell in supermarkets, making large
profits and shipping the food all over the world.

In north central Iowa, feed corn arrives at a collection point and is then shipped via rail to cattle farms and dairy farms across the US.

And it is also being exported across the border into Mexico, where it is having a profound effect on farmers.

Mexican corn farmer Ignacio Medina told Al Jazeera he cannot compete with the cheaper corn imports flooding in from the US under the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

"We have been affected in a way by a monopoly that has been imposed on us by more powerful countries," he said.

"It's not a conquest being done by guns, it's a conquest that is being carried out with food."

Bleak prospects

Mexican corn tariffs were gradually phased out following 1994's Nafta.

The country's imports of yellow corn, which is mostly used for animal feed, from the US have increased by about 240 per cent compared to the previous decade.

And imported yellow corn now accounts for almost 35 per cent of local use and is likely to increase next year.

For peasant farmers things are coming to an end ... we are dying off here in Mexico"

Ignacio Medina, Mexican farmer

As a result, many Mexican corn farmers are going out of business, with some forced into farming for drug cartels.

Others, meanwhile, are among the wave of illegal immigrants flooding into the US in the desperate search for work.

Gawain Kripke, policy director of Oxfam International, says some people estimate about one million Mexican farmers have lost their land.

"It's breeding resentment in developing countries, especially farmers in developing countries, who think its unfair that we provide billions of dollars to pretty rich farmers while they are suffering very miserably in poverty," he says.

In the meantime, for Ignacio the prognosis for the future is bleak.

"For peasant farmers things are coming to an end," he says.

"We are dying off here in Mexico. We are a species that is in the process of going extinct."

And there is no apparent relief in sight.

Subsidies for US corn farmers seem set to continue, and there is no real change expected in a presidential election year, when candidates need every vote they can get.

Source: Al Jazeera