“We believe that Mexico has every right to ask for what it wants,” says Lynn Clarkson, chief executive of Illinois-based Clarkson Grain company. “As a supplier, the United States should give its customers what they want.”
What Mexico, one of the biggest buyers of US corn, wants is to grow its own non-GM corn and import only non-GM corn to meet domestic demand. Its reasons for doing so include protecting the health of the population, the environment and Mexico’s genetic diversity of maize. Loss of that diversity would have “direct repercussions on the diversity of maize and ecosystems in all of North America and the rest of the world,” concluded a 2015 paper by the Commission of Environmental Cooperation, the environmental side accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
But Mexico’s proposed ban on GMO corn poses a direct threat to the profits and power of the world’s biggest seeds and chemicals manufacturers. If Mexico were to ban GMO imports, it would also send a message to other countries in Latin America, one of the biggest markets for GMO crops, that there are alternatives available. And those alternatives do not offer the same juicy proprietary perks as GMO seeds.
Strange Behavior for a Supposedly Capitalist Nation
This is why the US has launched a trade dispute against Mexico for seeking to phase out the importation and use of genetically modified corn and glyphosate, a probable carcinogen, on health, environmental and food self-sufficiency grounds. But as an article in the left-leaning Mexican daily La Jornada notes (translation by yours truly), not all farmers in the US oppose the Mexican government’s stance:
Clarkson Grain is a small company compared to many of its US counterparts, but in its sector it is a pioneer in the production and sale of organic and non-GMO corn and soybeans.
The Clarkson executive is an expert in non-GMO agriculture and has previously served on advisory panels for the US Department of Agriculture and the US Office of Commerce.
She says it is extremely strange for a nation that claims to be capitalist to be denying the customer what it wants.
Bill Freese, science policy adviser at the Washington DC-based non-profit Center for Food Safety, puts it in even starker terms:
It is scandalous that the United States is trying to force Mexico to accept transgenic corn with glyphosate residue, Freese said in an interview with La Jornada .
“We think that the United States should stop bullying Mexico to import this type of corn. Mexico is a sovereign country that must decide what to import or not.”
Freese believes that Mexico is doing the world a favor by raising concerns about GM corn. It is clear that glyphosate is a known carcinogen, he says.
As regular readers know, Mexico is one of the biggest buyers of U.S. corn, consuming around 17 million tonnes of mostly GM yellow corn annually, mostly for animal feed. But on December 31, 2020 Mexico’s President Andrés Manual Lopéz Obrador (aka AMLO) published a decree calling for all imports of GMO crops, including corn, and glyphosate to be phased out by the end of January 2024. Crucially, the decree enjoys the support of Mexico’s Supreme Court, which in 2021 ratified the Precautionary Measure that bans permits to sow genetically modified corn in Mexico.
But the ban on GMO imports would also hurt US farmers, global Big Ag companies and biotech behemoths. More than 92% of the corn grown in the States is GMO. Domestically, almost all of it is used as animal feed or to produce ethanol and processed food such as corn syrup. The rest is exported, roughly a quarter of which goes to Mexico.
“Most farmers, my generation and younger, have never even used conventional corn. We’re not set up to do it. We don’t have the equipment to do it,” Hinkel Farms’ Elizabeth Hinkel told FOX Business’ Madison Alworth on “Mornings with Maria“. “So it would be a huge investment if we had to go back to growing conventional. And on top of that, our yields would be decreased.”
As I reported in my Feb 2 piece, “Is the Unstoppable Force of Mexico’s GMO Ban About to Meet the Unmovable Object of US Big Ag Lobbies?“, Mexico and the US Department of Agriculture were heading for a head-on collision over Mexico’s proposed GMO ban.
At some point, something has to give; one side must blink. One can only hope, for the sake of Mexico and the world at large, it isn’t AMLO.
A lot has happened since then. Amid ratcheting pressure from the US side, AMLO’s government did eventually crack, albeit only partially. On February 13, it issued a new presidential decree that rowed back certain key elements of the original decree banning the importation of GMO products (including corn) and the use of glyphosate.
Crucially, the new decree allows for the continued importation of genetically modified yellow corn as long as it is used as animal feed or in processed food for human consumption. Any ban on GM feed corn would only be implemented incrementally, pending a full review of the science and the availability of adequate supplies of non-GM corn. The decree also retains plans to prohibit use of GMO corn for direct human consumption (i.e. in dough and tortillas) as well as the herbicide glyphosate, the deadline for which was brought forward to March 31, 2024.
Mexico also reserves the right to adopt precautionary measures it deems important to safeguard public health and the environment, including the genetic integrity of its full diversity of native corn. But as the land and food rights expert Timothy A Wise wrote a few weeks ago, “precaution” is a dirty word to US industry and government officials.
Given that almost all Mexican imports of GMO yellow corn are used in animal feed or industrial food processes, the decree represented a significant concession in Mexico’s standoff with the US. As El País reported at the time, the AMLO government had “relaxed its ruling on the prohibition of GMO corn in the country.” Also, “it eliminates the deadline to end the use of transgenic seed for animal fodder and industry, which had been set for January 2025.”
In other words, it gives US farmers plenty of additional time to rethink their business model, should they choose to do so. Yet even that was not enough to appease Mexico’s USMCA partners, the US and Canadian governments. On March 15, U.S. Trade Representative Katherina Tai confirmed that Washington is seeking consultation with Mexican authorities on the country’s plans to ban genetically engineered corn from human consumption.
“The United States has repeatedly conveyed our serious concerns with Mexico’s biotechnology policies and the importance of adopting a science-based approach that complies with its USMCA commitments,” Tai said in a news release. “Mexico’s policies threaten to disrupt billions of dollars in agricultural trade and they will stifle the innovation that is necessary to tackle the climate crisis and food security challenges if left unaddressed. We hope these consultations will be productive as we continue to work with Mexico to address these issues.”
Filling Mexico’s Corn Gap
AMLO’s response so far has been to stand his ground, or at least what little ground he has left. On March 7, he insisted that prohibiting the human consumption of transgenic corn does not violate the USMCA. According to Sharon Anglin, a senior lawyer at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a non-profit research and advocacy organization, he is right: the section on agricultural biotechnology in the USMCA treaty does not have a solid enough legal base for the US government to initiate a trade dispute against Mexico over this issue, especially given the Mexican government’s legitimate concerns about health and the environment.
At the same time, the US Corn Growers Association and other US and Mexican lobbying groups insist that Mexico will not be able to grow enough non-GMO corn on its own territory to meet its needs. But US growers could comfortably fill the gap, says Clarkson: perhaps there would be a small price increase and it would take a little longer, perhaps as long as two years, to produce more unmodified seed. But if Mexico wants it, it can be done, she says.
If that were to happen, it could spark a genuinely green counterrevolution in the US, as farmers abandon GMO varieties in order to maintain a key export market. Given enough time (which Mexico is now offering) and market incentives, many US corn farmers would happily revert to growing non-GMO corn, first for the Mexican market and then perhaps later for the domestic one.
More and more US farmers are already questioning the status quo, says Dale Wieoff, the communications director of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, a non-profit research and advocacy organization that promotes sustainable food, farm, and trade systems. Farmers are beginning to talk about the health of the soil, reducing the control of corporate monopolies, and diversifying the cultivation of food in the United States, Wieoff told La Jornada in December:
People are beginning to see the need to reassess the way we grow food in this country.
Sifting through the comments to my last piece on this issue, many regular NC readers with experience and knowledge of the industry seem to concur. Thousand points of green wrote:
If more than 92% of the corn grown in America is GMO, that means that more than 7% of the corn grown in America is GMO-Free. Why don’t the GMO-Free corn growers in America and the GMO-Free corn buyers in Mexico try to find each other? Why doesn’t the Non GMO Project try to get them in touch with each other?
If non-GMO corn were to take off in the US, it may go some way to reversing some of the hollowing out of local economies and communities that has taken place across large swathes of the corn belt, said Insouciant Iowan:
A switch to non-GMO corn would likely halt the depopulation of rural Iowa, since, as indicated, it requires attention that machines and glyphosate don’t give.
NC reader Truly raised some important technical and cost issues, while also noting that a partial shift away from GMO to non-GMO corn in the US could have significant implications for the actual meaning of efficiency for the country’s farmers:
Growing organic corn requires either mechanical or electrical cultivation. Mechanical means a big steel cultivator mounted to a tractor. Diggers churn the top soil in the gaps between the rows, killing weeds. They cant get the weeds right in the row, and they cant be used after corn gets over 2 feet tall. Electrical cultivating is the new big thing. It takes a lot of horsepower. My friend runs a 200+ HP tractor that has an additional 200+ HP alternator. This system actually “zaps” the weeds. They get hit with a bolt of juice, it fries even the roots. Similar limitations to mechanical cultivation.
As for nitrogen, organic turkey manure is selling like gold these days. You have to order it months in advance. Semiloads delivered to the field must then be reloaded into big (expensive) spreaders.
All this adds cost and labor to the project. And yields are significantly lower. My friends fields look like a weed patch to me. But organic sells at at least triple the price. maybe even up to 5 times higher.
As a commenter down thread notes, all of this is good for job creation. Right now the trends in farming are going huge or going tiny. The tiny operations seem competitive. Big ag suggests efficiency means the least amount of workers to work the most amount of land. I think it means how little land do you need to make a living. Our grandparents could raise a family of 8 on 80-160 acres. Now it takes 1000 plus acres to keep one farm family going.
Of course, if costs were to rise too high, that may price the corn out of range for many Mexican consumers and businesses. But hopefully by then Mexico will be much more self-sufficient in its own production of yellow corn while also sourcing more of its imported non-GMO corn from other countries such as Brazil and Russia. Even if that happens, US farmers could sell their wares to US consumers, some of whom will surely be prepared to pay a premium to enjoy the superior taste and health benefits of non-GMO corn.
That could ultimately feed through to significant improvements in both the diet and health of US consumers while at the same time protecting Mexico’s invaluable biodiversity in maize. But before any of that can happen, the US government is determined to break the Mexican government’s resolve and force it to continue importing GMO corn, a product it no longer wants.