Photo: Adobe Stock

Audrey HillAudrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

In late 2020, Mexico initiated a ban on genetically modified (GM) corn and made plans to be free of GM corn by January 2024. Mexico stated that the ban protects its people from health risks associated with GM corn and glyphosate, although some believe Mexico has no scientific backing to support its claim.  

Mexico is the largest long-standing importer of U.S. corn – only recently being surpassed by China – and purchased $4.9 billion in corn imports from the U.S. in 2022, according to the USDA. Most of this is not white corn for human consumption but yellow corn for animal feed. Since pressured by the U.S., Mexico rescinded its goal to be completely free of GM corn by 2023 but will focus on restricting GM corn for human consumption as 2024 approaches.  

According to the World Health Organization, GM corn is safe for human consumption, and Mexico—with no definitive scientific grounding— is violating the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. On March 6, U.S. Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, met with Mexico’s ambassadors to discuss the violation of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Chapter of the USMCA, including an obligation to scientific principles and disguised trade restrictions. The exact verdict is still undecided, but if Mexico is no longer a reliable importer of this corn, serious damage to America’s agriculture industry could ensue.  

Regardless of whether or not GM corn is safe to eat, Mexico has a deeply rooted cultural connection to corn. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico roughly 8,700 years ago, and several unique varieties of grain remain very important to Mexico’s cultural heritage and food staples, according to the National Science Foundation. An article from NPR released on July 3 tells the story of Alejandro Piñon.  

“‘There was a time when tortillas here in Mexico City were diverse. They came in greens and blues and pinks and purples. They were beautiful and handmade.’” Pinon told NPR. “But as tortillas industrialized, they were standardized, and you notice it immediately. The color is different. The taste is different.’”

Piñon says that cheap American corn flooded Mexican markets and now threatens the diverse varieties that remain in the birthplace of domestic corn. Although President Andrés Manuel López Obrador frames the dispute as a public health issue, many Mexicans back the ban for its promotion of national sovereignty and cultural heritage. Mexico argues they are not violating the USMCA because it never obliged them to buy American corn. The U.S. insists that their claims of health risks aren’t scientifically supported and, therefore, Mexico is violating the USMCA.  

Because Mexico has lightened up its new restrictions, the country will allow roughly 80% of its 2022 imports of U.S. corn to maintain in trade, as that is roughly how much Mexico purchases for livestock feeds. However, the remaining 20%, which makes up human consumption of American GM corn, will no longer be in trade. If Mexico successfully restricts GM corn from human consumption, it will need to find another source for roughly 20% of its corn market. Many U.S. corn farmers and associations believe Mexico cannot sufficiently do this.  

The European Union has a long-standing “ban” on GMOs under what is known as the precautionary principle, or a form of skepticism due to lack of certainty—in this case about the health and safety of GMOs. It’s likely that Mexico could follow in the EU’s footsteps to dismiss the U.S. warnings of violating the USMCA. The only problem for Mexico would be finding enough non-GM corn to feed their people. 

Although this trade dispute isn’t particularly pertinent to Central Valley agriculture, as corn isn’t a very prominent crop, it still plays a major role in feed and foods consumed everywhere. In an email exchange, Congressman David Valadao emphasized the importance of enforcing trade agreements in order to protect market access.    

“Our trade agreements only work if they are enforced. Mexico’s unscientific restrictions on genetically modified corn imports would negatively impact domestic growers and undermine the USMCA, which was negotiated to benefit America and Mexico alike,” Valadao said. “I’ll continue working to protect fair market access for Central Valley farmers.”  

Previous articlePresident’s Message
Next articleThe Need to Challenge Bad Environmental Regulations