This may be an important battle for Big Ag lobbies and biotech companies but it is an existential one for Mexico, for whom corn is the cornerstone not only of its cuisine and diet but also its culture.
Following months of failed negotiations, the U.S. government has escalated its food fight with Mexico by calling for the formation of a dispute settlement panel under the USMCA North American trade deal. The cause of the dispute is a decree passed by Mexico’s government that seeks to prohibit the use of genetically modified (GM) yellow corn for human use. Its reasons for doing so include protecting the health of the population, the environment and Mexico’s genetic diversity of maize.
The U.S. Trade Representatives Office, or USTR, argues that Mexico’s restrictions on GM corn imports are not only not based on “science” but “they undermine the market access [Mexico’s government] agreed to provide in the USMCA.”
Mexico is the birthplace of corn as well as the world’s richest repository of corn varieties. But it is also the second largest buyer of US-grown GM yellow corn, which is used almost exclusively for animal feed. This is thanks largely to NAFTA, which eliminated the Mexican government’s protection mechanisms for Mexican farmers while preserving U.S. corn subsidies for US farmers.
The largest buyer, China, is also trying to wean itself off US corn, partly by buying from other major suppliers, such as Brazil and Argentina, but also by expanding its own cultivation of yellow maize. It has its own set of reasons for wanting to do so, including its ever escalating trade war with the US. If Mexico were to do the same, as it is trying to, US corn growers could have serious difficulty finding replacement markets, with big knock-on effects for Big Ag, biotech firms and the four of five US states that depend heavily on the corn industry.
A Long, Legal Battle
This is a battle that has been raging since at least 2002, when transgenic traits were found in native maize varieties in the southeastern state of Oaxaca. As Timothy A Wise, a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute and a senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), recounts in chapter 7 of his book, Eating Tomorrow, “Not only had the transgene migrated on the wind, through maize’s open pollination, it had done so despite a nationwide ban on the planting of transgenic maize.”
Since then the world’s biggest GM seeds company have been trying to get official approval for the experimental and commercial planting of GM crops, including maize, in Mexican soil. In 2005, they finally got what they wanted when the Vicente Fox government lifted a seven-year moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops in Mexico. For the first time ever, GM maize could be planted in the country, but only in areas that were not considered “centres of origin for the crop.”
This stipulation would later become pivotal when new scientific research revealed that more or less all of Mexico, including the fields earmarked for GM crop trials in the northern borderlands, were centres of origin for maize.
Corn is the cornerstone not only of Mexico’s cuisine and diet but also its culture. In 2007, a mass social movement emerged bringing together more than 300 peasant organisations, environmentalists, human rights defenders, small and medium-scale producers, consumers, academics, women’s groups and chefs. They gathered under one unifying slogan: “Sin maíz, no hay país” (without maize, there is no country). Their mission was (and still is) to preserve Mexico’s native maize varieties as well as avert legislation that would apply brutally rigid intellectual copyright laws to the crop seeds they are able to grow.
In 2013, a collective of 53 scientists and 22 civil rights organisations and NGOs brought a suit against the GMO giants. And won. In September of that year, Judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo issued a precautionary injunction on all further permits of GM crops, citing “the risk of imminent harm to the environment.” Shortly after that, another brave judge, Marroquín Zaleta, suspended the granting of licenses for GMO field trials sought by Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Pionner-Dupont and Mexico’s SEMARNAT (Environment and Natural Resources Ministry), as I reported for WOLF STREET at the time:
In defending his ruling, Zaleta cited the potential risks to the environment posed by GMO corn. If the biotech industry got its way, he argued, more than 7000 years of indigenous maize cultivation in Mexico would be endangered, with the country’s 60 varieties of corn directly threatened by cross-pollination from transgenic strands. Monsanto’s response was as swift as it was brutal: not only did it – and its lackeys in the Mexican government – appeal Zaleta’s ruling, it also demanded his removal from the bench on the grounds that he had already stated his opinion on the case before sentencing.
However, Monsanto’s bullying tactics failed to impress the judges [of Mexico’s federal appeals court]. On August 15, the court convened to review Zaleta’s alleged bias ruled against the US corporation’s legal suit. Also spurned by the Mexican courts was the world’s third largest GMO seed manufacturer, Syngenta, whose reapplication for a license to run test trials of its maize crops was rejected.
Phasing Out GM Corn Imports
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) is the first Mexican president in a long time to have prioritised Mexico’s food sovereignty. Even on the campaign trail, in 2018, he said:
“We buy over 14 million tonnes of corn. (…) This is a contradiction, an aberration. Corn originally comes from Mexico and it now turns out that Mexico is one of the biggest importers of corn in the world. This cannot go on.”
Once in office he began putting his words into action. In late 2020, he passed a decree to phase out all imports of GM crops, including corn, and the herbicide glyphosate by January 2024. The decree enjoyed the support of many agricultural, environmental, public health and consumer groups.
But it also prompted a concerted push back from Big Ag lobbies and global biotech behemoths, which ultimately prompted a partial retreat from AMLO. In February this year he issued a new decree reiterating plans to block GM corn imports for human consumption but eliminating the deadline for imports intended for livestock feed and industrial use, which encompasses almost all US corn. The government reserved the right to substitute GM corn for animal feed some time in the future.
In other words, the process of weaning Mexico off GM corn would take longer than originally envisaged. One reason for this is that Mexico was struggling to build up its own production of non-GM yellow corn. What this meant is that the new decree would have minimal impact on US farmers, at least for some years to come, as Mexico gradually reduces its imports of . Only four percent of US corn exports are white corn, and most of that does not go into tortillas. Yet even that did not placate the US government.
Last Thursday (Aug 17) the U.S. government announced it is formally requesting a dispute settlement panel in its ongoing confrontation with Mexico over its limits on genetically modified corn.
As I noted in a previous piece, the outcome of this dispute settlement panel could have global repercussions:
If the panel sides with the plaintiffs, as tends to happen in most of these cases, Mexico could face significant retaliatory sanctions should its government decide to proceed with its ban on GM corn for human consumption. The message will be clear to governments worldwide: think twice before adopting measures to protect public health and the environment, if those measures threaten in any way the economic interests of a major exporter with whom you have signed a “free trade” agreement.
An interesting case in point right now is Colombia whose government is seeking to renegotiate its FTA with the US, signed in 2012. One of the main bones of contention are the FTA’s rules on agriculture, in particular corn. Almost all of the corn Colombia now consumes comes from the US, whose corn producers receive billions of dollars in government subsidies each year making it all but impossible for Colombian farmers and campesinos to compete, and Canada.
“If I wanted to replace that corn with planted Colombian corn, I would have 1.2 million more jobs and the Agrarian Bank would have to lend to those peasants and producers, but we would have 1.2 million more jobs, which is work, which ultimately is wealth,” said Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro in a speech to coffee growers a few days ago. “Why can’t I do it? Because the Free Trade Agreement with the United States that [my predecessors] signed a few years ago prohibits me.”
Mexico’s government also appears to be in combative mood. The Economy Ministry explained that it is prepared to defend the Mexican position before the international panel. Likewise, it indicated that Mexico will demonstrate: “1) that the national regulation is consistent with the commitments subscribed in the Treaty; and 2) that the contested measures do not have commercial effects.”
As IATP noted in a report, the US government has demanded that the Mexican government provide scientific evidence to support its GM ban. Yet when the AMLO government invited its US counterparts to collaborate in joint research on the effects of GM corn, they refused.
In response to U.S. officials’ critique of Mexico’s ban on GM corn as not founded in science, the Mexican government organized a robust series of webinars this spring that presented substantive evidence on the human health concerns surrounding GM food. For years, Mexico’s national science agency has maintained a public database of evidence underlying the concerns about public health and corn biodiversity from both GM corn and the herbicide glyphosate. A synthesis report of these scientific finds is due out shortly.
The U.S. government has refused Mexico’s offer to collaborate in an examination of the science, particularly in relation to less-well-studied concerns about the consumption of animal products fed on GM corn and glyphosate. Victor Suarez, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food Self-Sufficiency, told Reuters the U.S. thinks it can unilaterally determine the science of the issue.
The final ruling of the dispute panel will not be known until March or April next year, but US lawmakers representing corn-belt communities are already discussing how large a tribute to impose on Mexico when — not if — the dispute panel rules in Washington’s favour. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley has proposed a figure of $4 billion while Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer is calling for compensation of up to $20 billion. In the end, it won’t be up to them, or the US government’s trade representative, Katherine Tai, to decide.
“Regardless of the amount claimed by the US government, the dispute resolution panel will be in charge of determining the final amount of compensation, which may be greater, less, or equal to what the USTR requests, if applicable,” Jorge Molina, a public policy and international trade consultant, told the Mexican daily El Financiero.
Washington’s case against Mexico rests primarily on article 11 of chapter two of US-MCA, which states that the Mexican government must treat all corn imports in a similar way, regardless of their type or use. But Mexico’s government is confident it can win the panel dispute.
“We are convinced that our national regulation is consistent with all international treaties, particularly with the T-MEC, and that the measures taken do not have commercial effects,” said Mexico’s Economy Minister Raquel Buenrostro. “We took great care that it did not clash with any international treaty, particularly with the T-MEC”.
This is almost certainly true. And as Buenrostro adds, the February 2023 decree was not a prohibition or a violation of a trade agreement, but rather a basic manifestation of supply and demand forces. Mexico produces more than enough white corn as well as corn of many other colours to feed its human population, so why use genetically modified yellow corn?
Crucially, the decree has had no material impact on trade between the US and Mexico. Roughly the same amount of US-produced yellow corn continues to cross the border into Mexico on a month by month basis, where it is exclusively used as animal feed and for industrial purposes. That Mexico wants to gradually — as in, over a period of years — substitute GM yellow corn with non-GM corn, by finding other sources as well as expanding its domestic production of yellow corn, does not amount to a ban, says Buenrostro.
What’s more, the main motives for taking these actions are to protect the health of the population, the environment and Mexico’s genetic diversity of maize, which is a common good that extends far beyond Mexico’s borders. And it is not as if Mexico’s government is not giving US corn farmers plenty of additional time to rethink their business model, should they choose to do so. As we reported some months ago, some US farmers are willing to do that:
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.
This is a point that AMLO raised last Thursday on hearing about USTR’s decision to form a dispute settlement panel:
I think this is going to be very important because this is not just a Mexican issue. It is an issue that is going to help consumers in the US and all over the world. Because what we did was issue a decree so that yellow corn, which we consider genetically modified, is not used for human consumption. It can be used as animal feed but not for human consumption.
He also emphasised that his government’s decree is based on scientific research, including recent investigations that have shown that glyphosate has harmful effects on human health, the environment and biological diversity, and has been flagged as a possible carcinogen. AMLO said he welcomed the dispute panel since it will give an opportunity to present evidence on the matter free of conflicts of interest. The most important question, however, is whether the dispute panel itself is free of conflicts of interest.
AMLO also reiterated his proposal to Mexico’s North American trade partners, the US and Canada, to form a group of researchers to investigate and determine, once and for all, whether or not GM corn and glyphosate is harmful to human health and the environment. Presumably, the US and probably Canada will turn down the invitation. After all, if such a committee were formed and actually did its job, it could pose a huge threat to the profits and power of the world’s biggest seeds and chemicals manufacturers.
In a similar vein, if Mexico were to begin supplanting its GMO imports with non-GMO varieties, it would send a message to other countries in Latin America, one of the world’s biggest markets for GMO crops, that there are alternatives available. And those alternatives do not offer the same proprietary perks to Big Ag and biotech corporations as GMO seeds. As mentioned earlier, Colombia’s government is also calling for changes to its FTA with the US, which the US Ambassador to Colombia recently described as a win-win for both countries.
While the outcome of this trade dispute between Mexico and the US may be important for Big Ag lobbies, biotech companies and the handful of US states that heavily depend on the corn industry (onus on the word “industry”) and all the public subsidies it receives, it is an existential one for Mexico, for whom corn is the cornerstone not only of its cuisine and diet but also its culture.