On the last day of 2020, Mexican President Lopez Obrador pledged to phase out GMO corn imports and prohibit the use of glyphosate — the herbicide that commonly accompanies many GMO crops — by 2024. The decree is ambitious, controversial and well-worth defending.
Mexico is the birthplace of corn, and one of the United States' largest agricultural trading partners. America is the birthplace of GMOs, including GMO corn. More than 92% of the corn grown in the States is GMO. Mexico's ban will undoubtedly impact American farmers who grow GMO corn, and many of them are encouraging the U.S. government to intervene. A potential challenge could come under the banner of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement ("USMCA"), the trade agreement which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement ("NAFTA") in 2020.
Trade agreements can have devastating impacts on farmers. We've seen it happen once before: to Mexico, over corn.
The trouble with NAFTA
Before NAFTA went into effect in 1994, Mexican farmers supplied most of the corn for domestic consumption, saving and sharing seed as part of the stewardship of small-holder farming. The government protected corn farmers by allowing foreign imports only if the domestic supply faced a shortfall.
NAFTA eliminated the Mexican government's protection mechanisms for Mexican farmers while preserving U.S. corn subsidies for American farmers. The results were devastating for Mexico. During NAFTA's first decade, cheap U.S. corn flooded the Mexican market, causing the price of domestically-grown corn to plummet. The economic devastation to Mexico's agricultural sector cannot be overstated, and contributed to a 75% increase in illegal immigration into the States.
During the same time period, genetically modified corn entered the market. As GMO corn was adopted by more U.S. farmers, it gained a foothold in shipments headed for Mexico, ultimately leading to contamination of valuable native varieties.
GMO contamination in the homeland of maize
The cultivation of genetically modified corn for commercial purposes is already prohibited in Mexico. That means that it's illegal to grow GMO corn with the intention to sell it into the marketplace. While some GMO corn has been grown in test plots in Northern Mexico, agribusiness writer and researcher Tim Wise believes the test plots are not significant sources of contamination. "[It] isn’t pollen on the wind, it’s kernels of maize in people’s pockets.” Kernels that came across the border as imported grain.
Mexico imports an estimated 16 billion tons of U.S. corn each year. Most of that is genetically modified yellow corn used for livestock feed or industrial purposes. While Mexican farmers grow white corn for human consumption domestically, different varieties of corn can cross-pollinate. The result is a well-documented history of GMO contamination in native corn varieties grown in Mexico.
"The source of life."
The word "maize" is often used interchangeably with the word "corn." Just as corn originated in Central America, so did its alias. Indigenous people called the crop mahiz, which means “source of life." From that, we get the modern term — maize.
Today, corn is central to Mexico's cultural identity. It's not a stretch to think of it as the source of life because corn is critical to food security and political stability. As we wrote in this previous article on corn in Mexico, the crop's "spiritual and social importance contrasts deeply with genetically modified corn’s commodification, degradation and devaluation."
In the U.S., the National Corn Growers Association's director of public policy Angus R. Kelly objected to Mexico's looming ban, which he criticized as a rejection of biotech crop traits "without any scientific basis." Dismissing Indigenous rejection of unwanted technology as "unscientific" is a common racist dog whistle reflecting bigoted views. It's also simply not true. There is science supporting caution or outright rejection of GMOs, including significant work supplied by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
What threat does GMO contamination pose to native Mexican corn varieties? A report written by the Commission on Environmental Cooperation explored the issue in 2015:
"Impacts on the genetic diversity of Mexican maize could have direct repercussions on the diversity of maize and ecosystems in all of North America and the rest of the world. Mexico is one of the centers of origin for maize. To lose a variety of maize in Mexico is to lose it throughout the planet."
The report also notes that one trait of the contaminating pollen — the production of Bt insecticide — has had negative effects on non-target organisms in the United States.
The native species at risk of contamination carry invaluable genetic information and unique traits. Many can thrive in difficult growing conditions such as poor soil or mountainous land. Protecting native corn allows breeders to incorporate their traits into new varieties, creating plants that are crucial as we adapt to a changing climate.
In an interview with Reuters on October 26, Deputy Agriculture Minister Victor Suarez reaffirmed Mexico's commitment to the ban, saying it does not violate the USMCA and Mexico is "under no obligation to buy and grow [genetically modified] corn." The government is exploring new relationships with foreign non-GMO producers and continues to support small- and medium-sized farmers to increase domestic production.
The Non-GMO Project applauds Mexico's decision to ban genetically modified corn, safeguarding native maize varieties from GMO contamination and preserving Mexico's cultural heritage. This bold action will help protect and build the non-GMO food supply while preserving Mexico's sovereignty and autonomy.