Bayer branded Mexico’s behaviour as “unscientific”, a popular term of insult these days.
Mexico, the birthplace of modern corn, is no longer a welcome place for GMO corn. That is thanks to a presidential decree issued on December 31 that phases out the use of the “probably” carcinogenic herbicide glyphosate and bans the cultivation and importation of genetically modified (GM) corn. As NC reported in May, the German GMO giant Bayer at first was able to win a temporary reprieve from the government’s planned three-year phase out of the herbicide. But that decision was then overturned by Mexico’s Collegiate Court.
Now, reality is dawning for Bayer and other GMO manufacturers as Mexican health regulators begin putting the new rules into practice. Last week, for the first time ever, those regulators rejected a GMO corn permit for future importation solicited by the German pharmaceutical and crop science giant. As Reuters reports, Bayer was furious, branding the decision as “unscientific”, a popular term of insult these days:
“We are disappointed with the unscientific reasons that Cofepris used to deny the authorization,” the statement said, identifying the rejected corn variety as using its proprietary HT3 x SmartStax Pro technology…
Bayer […] criticized what it described as continuous regulatory delays with Cofepris as well as the possibility of additional permit denials that could have a “devastating impact” on Mexican supply chains.
The company said genetically modified crops including corn have undergone more safety tests than “any other crop in the history of agriculture” and have been judged safe for humans, animals and the environment.
This is a curious statement coming from a company that faces thousands of lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions over allegations that Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer — now Bayer’s Roundup week killer — causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Bayer, now worth $46 billion — $20 billion less than what it paid for Monsanto in 2018 in a deal that ranks as one of the worst, if not the worst, corporate acquisition in history — continues to reject claims that Roundup causes cancer even as new lawsuits pile up against it. As Yves noted in May, the company “has not only not taken the product off the market or attempted to reformulate it, it hasn’t even toughened up the warnings on its labels, apparently believing that doing so would be an admission of guilt.”
And now it’s hurling abuse at the Mexican government over its decision, guided primarily by the precautionary principle, to halt GMO imports. Industry lobby groups in Mexico have also blasted the ban, warning that if it is interpreted to include animal feed or other industrial uses, it could fuel food inflation in the country.
This is no idle warning. Food prices in the country are already surging, after seven straight months of rising year-on-year food inflation. For the policy to pay off, the government’s support of Mexican producers, in particular small-scale farmers, will need to translate into swift, significant, sustainable production increases. Greenpeace insists it is possible and has published a report to help governmental agencies “gradually replace the use, acquisition, distribution, promotion and import of [glyphosate].”
A Brave Judge
Business associations have repeatedly tried to persuade Mexican judges to overturn the government’s ban. But so far the judges are standing firm — something they’ve been doing since 2013, when a brave judge by the name of Manuel Zaleta ruled in favor of a motion brought by a grassroots coalition seeking to safeguard Mexico’s diversity and common ownership of corn. Since then the cultivation of GM corn in Mexico, even in field trials, has been banned. In his ruling Zaleta cited the potential risks GMOs posed to more than 7000 years of indigenous maize cultivation in Mexico.
Over the years Mexico’s GMO lobbies have filed over a hundred appeals against the judicial rulings, but they have all led nowhere. Just this Wednesday (Oct. 12), the first chamber of Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice unanimously rejected four appeals filed by transnational companies against the 2013 ruling. In addition, it threw out all of the legal challenges brought by the four GMO giants Bayer-Monsanto, Syngenta, PHI and Dow.
The Supreme Court also ruled that any judges who intervene in a class action trial “may issue any ruling that they consider pertinent to protect the rights and interests of a collective”, provided that the requirements of the law are met.
In a statement, the group Demanda Colectiva Maíz, which filed the first motion against GMO cultivation in 2013, described the decision as historic since it ratifies the precautionary measure that is needed to protect the country’s native corn:
“This decision is a game changer for the preservation of native corn and cornfields, as well as for the beekeeping sector and the bees themselves,… which have been severely affected by the entry of GMO crops such as soybeans and corn as well as the use of pesticides likee glyphosate.”
A Note of Caution
While Demanda Colectiva Maíz says the latest ruling is cause for celebration, the group also injected a note of caution: there’s no guarantee that it will be adhered to. Without a firm rule of law to back up the judicial decisions, “harm cannot be prevented, as has already been the case in the Yucatan Peninsula, where soybeans and even transgenic corn are grown illegally and with impunity despite the Supreme Court’s prohibitions.”
The Mexican government’s GMO ban and the Supreme Court’s rulings face an even bigger threat from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA is already in a “food fight” (to borrow from a recent Politico article) with the EU over its proposed Farm to Fork initiative. Under the proposal EU members will pledge to slash their pesticide use, reduce food waste, improve animal welfare and increase the amount of land used for organic or sustainable practices. Brussels will also ban imports of crops grown using agrichemicals that exacerbate global environmental problems. And that is likely to harm agricultural interests in the US. USDA has branded the EU’s plan as “anti-technology”, another popular term of insult these days.
The EU is the fifth-largest export partner for US agricultural goods, worth more than $11 billion per year. Mexico is the US’ third-largest agricultural trading partner. In 2020, $18.3 billion of agricultural goods and related products flowed from the US to Mexico. For its part the US purchased 85% of Mexico’s total agricultural exports, worth $33 billion. That gives the USDA a huge amount of leverage over Mexico. And it’s not afraid to use it. In a recent interview with the Spanish press agency EFE the US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, said he had already held conversations with Mexican authorities on the issue:
“I have had conversations with the secretary (of Mexican Agriculture, Victor) Villalobos, about some of the potential opportunities for Mexico, in terms of transgenic crops and possible restrictions that we believe may cause some problems. There are also problems with glyphosate and some other aspects of our relationship, but I am convinced that we have a good and positive working relationship. And whatever differences may arise, we can fix them. It is the good thing about the T-MEC.”
In the interview Vilsack also revealed that he has contacted Brazil and Mexico to propose a common agricultural strategy, which he hopes will serve as a counterweight to the EU’s “Farm to Fork” initiative:
“I got a very positive response from Brazil, and I also had an opportunity to speak with Secretary Villalobos, from Mexico, and he also understands the opportunities that this presents. I believe that the American continent in particular has the opportunity to come together because we share common approaches in technology, common approaches in agriculture, and we believe that that offers another alternative, another way to reach a future of zero emissions.”
Unfortunately, Vilsack did not explain how an even more intensive approach to agriculture would help bring this about. As an article in Modern Farmer points out, the main problem US agriculture has is not underproduction but overproduction, especially in key sectors such as corn, soy, wheat and dairy:
An obsession with production and yield has led to these sectors producing far more than the market needs, which in turn has led to large subsidies, mass governmental purchases and attempts to shoehorn excess production into products such as biofuel. The problem, as has been noted over and over again, is not that the world doesn’t produce enough food: It’s that people don’t have enough money to buy the food.
And, of course, there are the other problems. The obsession with yield and profit and growth has led to fewer jobs, corporate monopolies, land-squatting and environmental disasters fed by excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Mexico would rather take a different course, one aimed at achieving greater food autonomy, producing healthier food and safeguarding its own biodiversity. But as I warned in May, it will have its work cut out, especially given how much these goals threaten to undercut the commercial interests of its biggest trading partner as well as the financial interests of BigAg behemoths like Bayer.