With a deadline for an international agreement on the horizon, the push to ban genetically modified corn imports to Mexico is reigniting old industry questions.
The U.S., a world leader in corn exports, has met an international trade roadblock that boils down to a recurring question in modern agriculture: Are genetically modified crops bad for people and/or the planet?
Mexico, the second-largest importer of U.S. corn, has pursued a fight over genetically modified (GM) corn, to safeguard the country’s food sovereignty and environment. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador first elevated this conflict with a series of decrees in 2020. Come early April, if left unresolved, formal free trade agreement arbitration will start.
U.S. agriculture officials and its largest lobbying group want to stop the ban altogether, which is not new. The conflict goes back decades and has been propped up by U.S. agribusiness, politics, and industry influence from biotech companies.
Both countries have until April 7 to meet and come to an agreement. Otherwise, the dispute will become formal under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the 2020 free trade agreement signed by both countries.
Corn is an immensely important cultural, historical, and even religious crop in Mexico; there are at least 60 different varieties of corn native to the country. López Obrador’s decrees are rooted in protecting these diverse strains, promoting food sovereignty, and rebuilding the country’s rural economy — small and medium-sized Mexican farms were crushed by previous international trade agreements.
During his 2018 inaugural speech, López Obrador foreshadowed this fight, pointing to the nation’s lack of independence in its food systems. “Corn, this sacred plant, is from Mexico — yet we are the nation that imports the most corn around the world,” he said. In addition to corn, the Mexican president’s decrees have also put the controversial pesticide glyphosate, known as Roundup, in its sights, with plans to ban the chemical inside Mexico by 2024.
At the beginning of March, López Obrador moved forward with the ongoing plans to prevent the import of GM corn. One goal of the ban is to reduce cross-contamination from GM corn.
Mexico’s demand for U.S. yellow corn hinges on feeding its domestic livestock, which has increased dramatically in recent years. Mexico buys the second-highest amount of corn from the U.S., coming in at over 17 million metric tons a year. Mexico mainly grows domestic corn to feed its people; it’s projected that the country won’t be able to shore up the loss of imported corn if the ban goes through.
According to data from the USDA, nearly all corn, cotton, and soybeans planted in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Mexico has never allowed the commercial planting of GM corn. But, as a large buyer of imported corn, past studies have shown that 90 percent of tortillas in the country have traces of GM corn in them.
“We remain firm in our view that Mexico’s current biotechnology trajectory is not grounded in science.“
Initial conversations included a total import ban on GM corn from the U.S. — for livestock and human food alike. López Obrador has since retracted this decree and will only be banning GM corn planned for human consumption. According to Grain Council data, U.S. imports of corn to Mexico for human consumption is roughly 16%, which would have been just under 3 million metric tons last year.
Despite López Obrador walking back a total ban, U.S. officials and farmers aren’t pleased with the continued power struggle.
“While we appreciate the sustained, active engagement with our Mexican counterparts at all levels of government, we remain firm in our view that Mexico’s current biotechnology trajectory is not grounded in science, which is the foundation of USMCA,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a March 6 statement. “We remain unequivocal in our stance that the science around agricultural biotechnology has been settled for decades.”
Lance Lillibridge, a farmer from Benton County, Iowa, the nation’s top corn-producing state, splits his 2,100 acres of corn between roughly 60% GM corn and 40% non-GM corn. He said this practice is “good stewardship” to not build resistance to certain insects or chemicals. The Iowa farmer believes the ongoing corn kerfuffle lacks a basis in science.
“There’s no scientific proof to show that genetically modified corn is harmful for human consumption,” said Lillibridge, chair of the Iowa Corn Growers Association.
Research from the Food and Drug Administration, Purdue University, and the USDA, among others, affirms what Lillibridge says: There is no proven harm to human health by GM corn. But when it comes to the corn’s effect on the environment, it gets tricky.
“If the U.S. doesn’t win this, there’s a risk that other GM crop issues are going to come up.”
On one hand, some research cautions there may be untold ecological impacts from “gene flow” between GM and non-GM corn, like crops evolving into weeds or losing desirable genetic traits. Conversely, GM corn can require less sprayed pesticide application throughout the growing season, allowing for easier transition to no-till practices.
“Our soil health has been getting better and better and better, and that’s because of GMO corn,” Lillibridge said. “If we go away from that, we’re going to have to go back to the way we used to plant and grow corn, and that’s going to require a lot of tillage.”
With planting season around the corner, Lillibridge said he’s not concerned that the trade dispute will greatly impact his operations — as it stands, the decree put forth by López Obrador still allows for imports of American corn used for livestock. But the decree would disrupt the agriculture sector in the big picture, such as crop transportation and grain storage in elevators.
“It is going to create more harm to them than it is us,” Lillibridge said, “but it will be harmful to us.”
While the U.S. corn sector could take a hit if the ban goes through, Ian Sheldon is more interested in the precedent set by a formal dispute process. Sheldon, chair of Agricultural Marketing, Trade, and Policy at Ohio State University, said the fight is an important proving ground for the ways the U.S. will solve future trade problems.
“If the U.S. doesn’t win this case, there’s a risk that other GM crop issues are going to come up,” Sheldon said.
In 2015, almost 30 countries in the European Union, including France and Germany, banned the growth of GM crops in their borders, but many of them still accept those crops by way of imports. Depending on what happens with Mexico, Sheldon believes other countries may start considering GM corn import bans.
“We are asking for agricultural production that doesn’t use agri-chemicals or GMO, and also respects human rights.”
He said that if the talks fail, an independent panel would be created and a regulatory review process would begin, which could take upwards of 150 days. After that point, Sheldon said that the trade dispute could eventually end up with the U.S. enacting retaliatory tariffs on Mexican agricultural imports such as fruits, berries, and avocados.
He also noted that this continued battle will help understand how future disputes over GM crops could play out, as the USMCA is a relatively new agreement, without a large track record. “For agriculture, it’s probably the most important case that’s come before the dispute settlement mechanism since it was put in place,” Sheldon said.
For advocates of the Mexican decree, importance has been placed on resilience. Viridiana Lázaro, food and agriculture campaigner for Greenpeace Mexico based in Mexico City, said that protecting the country’s biodiversity is key for Mexican growers in the face of changing climate and markets.
“The better way to (grow corn) is to leave it in the hands of the farmers that have been taking care of the corn for many many years,” Lázaro said. “They have been rebuilding the seeds and adapting.”
The future of Mexican agriculture could be found in these seeds, which, due to their massive genetic diversity, can help improve resiliency to pests and harsh weather conditions. These conditions are snowballing because of climate change; Lázaro said that Mexican farmers can become resilient in the face of flooding, heat, and soil health if they have independence from American agribusiness.
“We are asking for agricultural production that doesn’t use agri-chemicals or GMO, and also respects human rights,” Lázaro said. “Don’t harm the soil, don’t harm the people, don’t harm the water and the air.”
She said that GM corn contributes to increased pesticides in the seeds, which can harm native seeds and make their way into the soil, harming the country’s agricultural future.
“For us, corn has many meanings — it’s not just a commodity,” Lázaro said.