This story, from late last week, is a little on the late side, but it didn’t come to my attention until just three days ago. That said, I believe it more than warrants a blog post, for the following reasons: a) it has received, as far as I can tell, no coverage at all in the English language press; b) it qualifies as an inspirational good news story, of which there are so precious few these days; and c) the corn war between Mexico and the US continues to escalate. Whatever the outcome, it will probably end up having regional, if not global, repercussions.
“Not only did they hold the line on GM corn planting during five years of hostility from their own government, they also helped open the door to a new government that takes native corn and its protection seriously.”
On World Food Day (Oct 16) this year, the Salt Lake City-based environmental organisation, Pax Natura Foundation, presented its annual Pax Natura award to Demanda Colectiva, a Mexican collective of 53 people from 22 organizations who have spent the past ten years resisting attempts by GMO giants like Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, to impose GMO corn on Mexico. So far, that resistance has been a remarkable success: ten years after the collective’s initial class-action suit to block field trials of GM corn, the precautionary injunction issued by Judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo remains in force despite more than 130 company appeals.
Crucially, as an op-ed in the Mexican daily La Jornada notes, Demanda Collectiva’s lawsuit does not seek to obtain financial compensation through the legal process, but rather aims to recover the vitality of Mexico’s fields of corn, as well as stop the use of glyphosate and genetically modified organisms. Mexico’s wildly diverse corn varieties are, the op-ed argues, common and ancestral forms of property that have sustained and enriched the Mexican people’s gastronomic, social and cultural life for millennia.
Demanda Collectiva is certainly worthy of recognition, writes Timothy A Wise, a senior advisor at the US-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, in his latest article for Food Tank:
Not only did they hold the line on GM corn planting during five years of hostility from their own government, they also helped open the door to a new government that takes native corn and its protection seriously.
Demanda Colectiva was picked for this year’s Pax Natura award for its “courage and wisdom to resist the ravages of industrial agriculture that degrades the land, destroys biodiversity and encourages increased carbon emissions,” says Pax Natura Foundation’s president and founder Randall Tolpinrud. Previous recipients of the award have included the English primatologist, anthropologist and environmental campaigner Jane Goodall and former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.
Speaking at the award ceremony, Goodall said “more people need to know about” the Mexican collective’s “courageous fight.” This is particularly true given the rising tensions between the US and Mexico over the future of corn.
🌱 Mensaje de Jane Goodall, bióloga británica, fundadora del @JaneGoodallInst y ganadora del Premio Pax Natura 2005 por su labor de impulsar programas de conservación para los chimpancés; a la Demanda Colectiva Maíz por recibir el #PremioPaxNatura2023.
— Demanda Colectiva Maíz (@MxvsGMO) October 24, 2023
Escalating Food Fight
In late August, Washington escalated its food fight with Mexico by calling for the formation of a dispute settlement panel under the USMCA North American trade deal. This was in response to Mexico’s AMLO government’s decision in February to ban GMO corn for human consumption as well as prohibit use of the “probably” carcinogenic weedkiller glyphosate — the herbicide that commonly accompanies many GMO crops. The names of the three panelists who will determine whether or not Mexico’s democratically elected government can actually do this without facing serious financial penalties were announced last week.
It is easy to see why Washington is concerned. More than 92% of the corn grown in the States is GMO. Roughly a quarter of all the corn exported by the US goes to Mexico, where it is predominantly used for animal feed. As such, Mexico’s ban will hurt some US farmers, but the impact is likely to be muted. But 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.”
Canada was quick to join the fray by supporting the US government’s charges against Mexico’s AMLO government, despite the fact it does not export corn, GM or otherwise, to Mexico. As in the US, the Canadian government is firmly in the pockets of the global biotech industry, as a recent exposé by Radio Canada revealed (translation from the French mine as well as the remarks in parenthesis).
Hand in hand with federal officials, the agrochemical lobby CropLife, which represents companies like Bayer, co-piloted regulatory changes, documents obtained by Radio-Canada reveal. Their collaboration even had a name: “Tiger Team”.
In addition to developing reforms [to, among other things, end the regulatory obligation on the industry to publicly declare certain genetically modified plants] behind closed doors, they defined concepts together and jointly developed communication strategies. All this was done months before a public consultation was held on the [proposed reforms]. The conclusion of the consultation was exactly what the industry wanted.
The Council of Canadians, a non-profit organization that advocates for clean water, fair trade, green energy, public health care, and democracy, published a report last week lashing the Trudeau government for its subservience to corporate biotech interests, including in the escalating food fight between the US and Mexico:
This new regulatory decision that allows the sale of unknown, unregulated GMOs amounts to a biotech corporate take-over of the Canadian food system where companies will control all of the science and information about new GMOs. But the biotechnology industry also wants to… force its products onto the market in other countries – and the Canadian government is in fighting form on the side of these corporate interests.
“No Hay País Sin Maíz” (No Country Without Corn)
Unlike the US and Canada, Mexico now has a government that prizes the preservation of its native corn varieties above the interests of the biotech industry. In 2021, the Supreme Court banned genetically modified corn seeds. In doing so, writes Ernesto Hernández López, an international lawyer, it “constitutionally enshrined the argument that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) permanently damage biodiversity, that genetic diversity within crops is indispensable for responding to climate change, pests, and disease, and that corn’s diversity in particular is vital to food security for Mexico and the globe alike.”
Corn is the cornerstone not only of Mexico’s cuisine and diet, providing 45% of the average calorie intake and 38% of protein consumption, but also its culture. The crop has had a prominent role in the stories, myths and legends of Mexico’s indigenous communities, including the Mayan text Popul Vuh, and is even represented in Aztec gods like Cintéotl, who rose from under the ground to protect maize, notes Hernández López.
It is a legacy that most Mexicans are willing to defend. 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. United under the slogan, “Sin maíz, no hay país” (without corn, 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.
As Wise recounts, when he asked Demanda Collectiva’s lead lawyer, Rene Sánchez Galindo, how he thought they would be able to overcome the massive economic and legal power of the companies and government, Sánchez Galindo responded with a smile, “The judge surely eats tacos. Everyone here eats tacos. They know maize is different.”
By 2015, Mexico had become one of the major battlegrounds of the 21st century global food wars, as I reported at the time for WOLF STREET:
On one side of the battle line is Demanda Colectiva AC, a collective of 53 scientists and 22 civil rights organizations and NGOs fighting to protect Mexico’s extraordinary wealth of food crop biodiversity; on the other is a coalition of the world’s GMO goliaths led by US agribusiness giant Monsanto. Their ultimate goal is complete control over the Mexican food chain. And in their bid to achieve it, they can count on the unwavering support of Mexico’s Ministries of Agriculture and the Environment.
“A Sea Change in Government Policy”
That all changed with the arrival of the AMLO government in late 2018, as notes Timothy Wise:
Since the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his Moreno movement in 2018, there has been a sea change in government policy toward rural Mexico. As I outline in an extensive interview with Victor Suárez, Undersecretary of Agriculture for the new post of Food Self-Sufficiency, government programs now favor small and medium-scale producers, promote agroecology and agroforestry, offer support prices for key food crops, and promote laws to enshrine such policies. A right to food law is nearing approval in the Mexican legislature.
López Obrador has also backed the Demanda Colectiva, withdrawing government support from the companies in the legal dispute. Some of the 53 plaintiffs, such as Suárez, now find themselves in key government ministries. Most dramatically, the president has issued a presidential decree that not only bans GM corn planting but also its consumption in tortillas and other basic corn preparations.
It is a dramatic shift after three decades of neoliberal, pro-free trade governments in Mexico. And it has provoked a strong backlash from the U.S. government, which is taking Mexico to an arbitration panel under the renegotiated US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement to try to stop the GM corn decree.
That legal process will unfold over the next six months, with Mexico vowing to present evidence for its public health concerns about the consumption of GM corn and its associated herbicide, glyphosate, in tortillas and other preparations made from minimally processed corn. They intend to show that there are no studies that demonstrate the long-term safety of GM corn in the ways Mexicans consume it. So precaution is warranted.
They will also argue that precautionary measures are needed to protect the country’s wealth of native maize diversity, which is threatened by uncontrolled GM cross-pollination. That is the central claim in the Demanda Colectiva’s case, which deliberately chose to focus on the environmental threat to corn diversity rather than health risks. Citing a bevy of research, including a massive trinational study of native corn contamination from GM corn pollen, the plaintiffs argued that that the Mexican constitution guarantees the right to a clean environment, and in Mexico that right has to include the integrity of its cherished native corn.
Mexico also desperately needs to reduce its outsized dependence on the US for its number one staple food. That’s not just my opinion; it’s the opinion of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which recently cited Mexico as an example of a country that has grown dangerously dependent on a single supplier for a basic foodstuff.
Currently, Mexico, the birthplace of corn, is the world’s second largest importer of corn, and a staggering 96% of its foreign purchases come from the US, the world’s largest exporter of corn. Most of it comes in GMO form. This is primarily the result of NAFTA which eliminated the Mexican government’s protection mechanisms for Mexican farmers while preserving the US government’s lavish subsidies for US farmers.
Mexico’s dependence on US corn is, if anything, likely to grow, rather than shrink, at least in the near term. Just when the Mexican government needs domestic production to rise, a recent drought affecting large swathes of the country, including the state of Sinaloa which produces around 60% of Mexico’s corn, is triggering warnings of crop failures and shortages. On a more positive note, Mexican agricultural researchers are reportedly making strides in producing more non-GM yellow corn seeds to help replace imported grain from the US.
Meanwhile, the mother of all investor state dispute settlements awaits. According to Hernández López, there are multiple legal avenues for Mexico to argue that its ban is allowable under the USMCA:
First, the free trade agreement does not require Mexico to import GMOs. Chapter 3 expressly states that the agreement does not mandate any “authorization for a product of agricultural biotechnology to be on the market.” Second, Mexico can point to the treaty’s allowance for domestic controls over food safety. Chapter 9 allows each country to adopt measures it “determines to be appropriate” for “protection of human, animal, or plant life or health.”
Finally, Mexico can point out that Chapter 24 specifies that environmental issues—including “conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity”—are matters of national sovereignty.
In fact, environmental controls were one of the key selling points for the trade treaty to be approved by U.S. Congress. American legislators worried that if Mexican businesses did not comply with environmental regulations, such as over clean air or clean water U.S. exporters would be undercut.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Mexico will win. These kinds of dispute panels tend to favor plaintiffs, which are generally corporations suing States, either directly or, as here, through another State. If that were to occur in this case, says Hernández López, it would render the USMCA trade pact’s environmental clauses subject to a glaring double standard, “with enforcement sought when environmental protections serve U.S. exports but ignored when they seek to safeguard access to a daily staple and maintain the health and safety of Mexican people.”
The outcome of this dispute will almost certainly end up having regional, if not global, repercussions. If, on the off chance, Mexico were to actually win, it would represent a watershed moment for governments, mainly in the so-called Global South, looking to take back control of their food supplies. Some may even be emboldened to renegotiate the agricultural clauses of the FTAs they have signed with countries like the US.
It would also be a victory for humanity as a whole. As a paper by the the Commission of Environmental Cooperation, the environmental side accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) warned some years ago, the loss of Mexican maize would have “direct repercussions on the diversity of maize and ecosystems in all of North America and the rest of the world.”
If Mexico loses the dispute, that loss will become far more likely. Also, Mexico could face crippling tariffs should the AMLO government proceed with its ban on GM corn for human consumption. The chilling effect would be huge, prompting governments to think long and hard before adopting any measures to protect public health and the environment and bolster their country’s food security, especially if those measures impinged on the profits of a major exporter with whom the country had signed a “free trade” agreement.
Also, the US will be further emboldened to take even more retaliatory actions against Mexico, its largest trading partner, for daring to adopt policies that might benefit Mexican people but impact the profits of US corporations, as it is already talking of doing over the Mexican government’s renewed commitment to energy independence. Once again, double standards are the standard.