Is the Unstoppable Force of Mexico’s GMO Ban About to Meet the Unmovable Object of US Big Ag Lobbies?

Is the Unstoppable Force of Mexico’s GMO Ban About to Meet the Unmovable Object of US Big Ag Lobbies? 1

Mexico is not only dangerously dependent on US growers for its most important staple crop; it is growing more and more dependent by the year. Mexico’s government wants to reverse this dynamic, but the US has other ideas.

Mexico’s government recently unveiled plans to impose a temporary 50% export tax on white corn, a staple food in the country, which will remain in effect until at least June 30. Mexico is fully self-sufficient in white corn but depends on the US for much of its supply of yellow corn. The government said the move was necessary to guarantee supply and price stability of the staple, but it almost certainly also forms part of the government’s broader campaign to reduce Mexico’s dependence on US imports of GMO food, in particular corn.

“The supply and production of white corn in our country are important factors in determining its price and, therefore, of the various consumer products made from it,” the decree published in Mexico’s official gazette said.

A Towering Wall of Resistance

Needless to say, the move did not go down well with the US government, which is threatening to sue Mexico’s government over its plans to phase out all imports of GMO crops, including corn, by the end of January 2024. Those plans were first set out in a presidential decree issued by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) on Dec 31, 2020. The decree also pledges to prohibit use of the “probably” carcinogenic weedkiller glyphosate — the herbicide that commonly accompanies many GMO crops. The cultivation of GMO crops is already banned in Mexico.

In the words of the Non GMO Project, a Washington State-based non-profit, AMLO’s decree is “ambitious, controversial and well-worth defending.” But it faces a towering wall of resistance, particularly from Big Ag lobbies in the United States.

The CEO of the US National Corn Growers Association, John Doggett, warned in November that AMLO’s decree would be “devastating” both for the Mexican people, who will have to contend with much higher corn prices, and U.S. corn farmers, who will suddenly lose access to their largest overseas market. He also noted that GMO corn isn’t the only crop being targeted by Mexican officials: “Biotech soybeans, cotton and canola import approvals have also been rejected by Mexico’s regulatory agency over the past year.”

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 undoubtedly hurt some US farmers.

To cushion the impact, the AMLO government in December proposed postponing the deadline for the ban until January 2025 as well as exempting yellow feed corn from the ban until an independent investigation (i.e. not financed by GMO producers) can be conducted into its effects on human health.

But Mexico’s offer to show flexibility in both the scope and timing of its restrictions on GM corn was not enough to appease the US government. A couple of weeks ago, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the Biden administration is unwilling to make any commitments regarding Mexico’s tweaked proposal. That was after threatening to initiate a U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement dispute resolution in December.

“The message is quite simple; we believe in a science-based system,” Vilsack said. “We understand and appreciate some of the challenges President López Obrador has outlined but at the end of the day, the agreement we reached with Mexico and Canada is in support of a science-based system.”

It may have escaped Vilsack’s notice but at this stage in proceedings government appeals to “trust” or “follow” corporate-controlled science do not have quite the same effect they once did. What’s more, there is little in the way of consensus on the issue. In recent years, a number of studies have warned that contamination of Mexico’s native corn varieties by GMO strands would have disastrous consequences for the food supply not only in Mexico but around the world as a whole.

“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,” concluded a 2015 paper by the Commission of Environmental Cooperation,the environmental side accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “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.”

An Immovable Object

As if to draw a line under the matter, Vilsack said the position of his government is immovable. The AMLO government’s response was to place a 50% tax on all exports of white corn.

In a statement last week, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative Chief Agricultural Negotiator Doug McKalip and U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Alexis Taylor upped the ante. Mexico’s repurposed approach, they said, “still threatens to disrupt billions of dollars in bilateral agricultural trade, cause serious economic harm to U.S. farmers and Mexican livestock producers, and stifle important innovations needed to help producers respond to pressing climate and food security challenges”:

Then came the warning shot:

In our meetings today, we reemphasized the concerns previously expressed by Secretary Vilsack and Ambassador Tai. We appreciate our Mexican counterparts’ time and dedication in trying to hammer out a solution. We made it clear today that if this issue is not resolved, we will consider all options, including taking formal steps to enforce our rights under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

For the moment, it is hard to see either side backing down. AMLO has every reason to want to carry through with his ban on GMO corn and other biotech crops. This is not just about protecting people’s health or crop diversity; it is about restoring Mexico’s ability to feed its own people.

Once the birthplace of maize, Mexico is now the world’s second largest importer of corn. 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 results were devastating for Mexico, notes Non GMO Project:

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.

In 2022, Mexico overtook China as the number-one destination for US exports of corn. According to figures from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), in the fiscal year from October 2021 to September 2022, Mexico’s grain imports from the US surged 25% to reach $5.12 billion, the highest figure since there records began, in 1970.

In other words, Mexico is not only dangerously dependent on its northern neighbor for its most important staple crop; it is growing more and more dependent each and every year. And AMLO wants to reverse this dynamic. Since coming into office in late 2018, he has made food security and self-sufficiency one of the main priorities of his government. In November, he announced: “We have to aim for self sufficiency in food, just as we have done with energy.”

To that end, Mexico is exploring new relationships with foreign non-GMO producers, including fellow Latin American powerhouse Brazil, the world’s second largest corn exporter. Last Friday (Jan 27), the Mexican Secretariat for Agriculture and Rural Development (Sader) and the Brazilian Embassy in Mexico agreed to work toward strengthening and expediting agricultural trade between the two countries.[1] Mexico is also in talks with US producers of non-GMO corn while also supporting small- and medium-sized farmers at home to increase domestic production.

But it may take longer than originally envisaged for Mexico to wean itself off US-supposed GMO corn completely. According to Victor Suárez, the Undersecretary of Food and Competitiveness of the Secretariat of Agriculture, Mexico will not be able to replace all of the corn it imports by 2024, but it still hopes to reduce its purchases from overseas by between 30% and 40%. The country, he said, is advancing “significantly” in its objective of replacing imported GMO corn.

Something’s Gotta Give

That terrifies US Big Ag lobbies. Especially given the lessons such a ban, if effective, could give to other parts of the world. After all, this is about banning not just the cultivation but also the consumption of GMOs. It would send a clear message to other countries in Latin America, one of the biggest markets for GMO crops, that there are alternatives. It may even 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. After all, it is only really a matter of changing seeds. The problem is that some of the larger seed companies may not want to produce more non-GMO seeds for growers since they already make most of their money from GMO varieties. Plus, non-GMO seeds do not offer the same juicy proprietary perks as their GMO counterparts.

For the moment, the GMO giants seem content to swamp the airwaves and news pages with warnings about the catastrophic threat posed by Mexico’s GMO ban. One study financed by Crop Life, the biotech industry trade association, and other agribusiness interests in the U.S. and Mexico, warns of crippling costs and lost output for U.S. farmers and soaring inflation and severe food insecurity in Mexico.

But as notes Timothy A. Wise, a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, in his article, No Reason for Alarm over Mexico’s GM-Corn Ban, the study “starts from a set of unrealistic assumptions designed to produce inflated estimates of harm to U.S. farmers and Mexican consumers” [2]. Which is hardly surprising given the conflicts of interest at play.

There are also serious doubts about whether or not the US can actually compel Mexico to buy its GMO exports. According to Sharon Anglin, a senior lawyer at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a non-profit research and advocacy organization, 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.

Yet the standoff between the two governments continues to intensify. 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.


[1] Worth noting that Brazil is the second largest producer of GMO crops on the planet after the US. As such, it remains to be seen whether Brazil could actually represent a genuine alternative supplier. At the very least, many of its farmers would have to revert to growing non-GMO crops (hardly a bad thing).

[2] Wise’s article, featured on the website of US non-profit Foot Tank, is well worth a read for anyone seeking to understand some of the broader issues and conflicting interests at play. Wise’s work has been cross-posted on Naked Capitalism a number of times, including here, here and here.


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