Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently proposed an enforcement that would ban the use of genetically modified (GM) corn in the tortilla and masa industry by the end of January 2024. Obrador argues the ban will support the country’s food sovereignty, promote biodiversity, and protect human health.
For the past several years, Mexico’s government has sought to regulate biotechnology to protect native corn species. “We have to take care of health and also protect the native varieties of corn,” says Obrador during a recent speech. According to the President’s decree, the policy is aimed at ensuring food security and biodiversity by preserving diverse maize varieties. It also tries to protect small-scale farmers and their agricultural practices.
The enforcement includes minimally processed corn, defined as the tortilla and masa industry in the decree, but not more processed foods such as oils. Initially, it also included restrictions on GM corn for animal feed and industrial uses but following pushback from the United States, the Mexican government offered to compromise by exempting this category. The offer has since been rejected by the Biden administration.
The measure, while not placing formal restrictions on imports and trade, continues to be challenged by the United States. According to Andrew Brandt, the U.S. Grains Council’s director of trade policy, the proposed ban raises questions about the future of corn production, biosecurity, and trade policy. He states that this ban could cause a “significant market reaction,” creating economic ramifications for farmers.
Agribusiness leaders and lobbyists also assert that the trade restriction, if upheld, could have significant implications for both Mexican and American farmers. The National Corn Growers Association says that this ban would be “catastrophic” for American corn producers, and demands that the U.S. government “stand up for American farmers.”
But Timothy Wise, Senior Advisor on the Future of Food at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, states that this will only minimally impact U.S. farmers. “Banning the use of GM corn in tortillas is a precautionary public health measure that affects a very small number of US farmers,” Wise tells Food Tank.
Following concerns, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) recently sought technical consultation to demonstrate impacts on trade. “Mexico’s policies threaten to disrupt billions of dollars in agricultural trade,” states USTR Ambassador Katherine Tai. “They will stifle the innovation that is necessary to tackle the climate crisis and food security challenges if left unaddressed.”
In response, Mexico is welcoming the consultations, and has promised to prove that this policy will be enacted in the “least trade-distorting manner possible” per the USMCA agreement.
According to Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures of the USMCA, Mexico must prove that imported GM corn poses a health or biosecurity risk to uphold the proposed ban. The USTR states that Mexico is violating its commitment to ensure these measures are scientifically based. And U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, says that “We remain firm in our view that Mexico’s current biotechnology trajectory is not grounded in science, which is the foundation of USMCA.”
Mexico has responded to USTR’s demand for scientific justification in a document that has not been made public by either party. The SPS Measure does not prevent any country from taking precautionary measures, even if these measures are not in line with another country’s safety regulations.
While GM advocates state that GM products are safe to consume, research in Environmental Sciences Europe concludes that there is no international consensus. According to studies published in Nature, Commission for Environmental Cooperation, and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, GM corn can damage Mexico’s maize diversity. But Brandt maintains that GM foods pose no risk and maintains that the science “is settled.”
In contrast, Wise argues, “There is certainly cause for precautionary measures to protect the country’s cherished tortillas and the millions of people who rely on them for their basic sustenance.”
If a resolution is not reached, the USTR can establish an independent panel to investigate and rule on this measure. This could lead to the removal of the ban and further discussions on biosecurity, health, and biotechnology in trade agreements.
“Other trading partners could follow suit if we allow this crass violation of USMCA to stand,” says Angus Kelly, the public policy director for the National Corn Growers Association. While Canada does not export corn, they have joined the U.S. in action, because they have similar concerns about the future implications of GM product regulations.
But a coalition of Indigenous and environmental advocacy groups in Mexico believe the ban may enable Mexico’s small farmers to foster the growth and production of heirloom corn varieties, bolstering local biodiversity and food security.
Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, Mexico’s domestic corn industry has suffered due to competing with U.S. agricultural subsidies, research from Oxfam International shows. Indigenous farmers, particularly hard-hit by price shocks, can revive their traditional farming practices.
“Cheap U.S. exports have been undermining Mexican farmers for years, making the country dependent on imports for its food,” Wise tells Food Tank. “It is good to see the government taking proactive steps to reverse that trend.”
Anet Aguilar, a member of the National Campaign No Country Without Corn (Campaña Nacional Sin Maiz No Hay País), states that the ban is integral to preserving her family’s cultural tradition and heritage. “We have to go up and demand change from the top down,” she affirms.
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