BY FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ
Three years ago, a Mexican presidential decree declared it would ban genetically modified (GM) corn and the herbicide glyphosate by Jan. 31, 2024. Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador stated “We will protect the biological and cultural diversity of Mexico. We will promote agroecological practices that increase productivity without harming the environment. We will not allow the introduction and use of genetically modified seeds.”
The problems Mexico and other countries like France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Turkey have with GMO corn, which they have all banned, are that allegedly GM plants can cross-pollinate with nearby crops, making organic farming difficult. Cross-pollination has eliminated a large portion of heirloom varieties of corn and could contaminate wild plants as well. Crops with built-in pesticides can also affect aquatic plants and wildlife through contamination of nearby streams.
With that said, China imports $8B of USA GMO corn, with Mexico second at $5.12B. Japan and Egypt are third and fourth with $4.7B and $2.4B. The U.S. produces mostly yellow corn, while almost 90% of Mexico’s corn is white.
Mexico currently imports about 17 million tons of genetically modified corn per year from the United States, mostly yellow corn that is used in animal feed. The cultivation of genetically modified corn for commercial purposes is already prohibited in Mexico. That means it is illegal to grow GMO corn with the intention to sell it in the marketplace.
Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said it would take initial steps toward challenging a ban that Mexico has placed on shipments of genetically modified corn from the United States, restrictions that have upset American farmers and threatened their profitable export.
Corn is both a symbol of Mexico’s cuisine and indigenous cultures and the biggest cash crop in the United States.
“Corn originated in Mexico,” López Obrador said in a speech defending the plan to ban GMO corn. “It can’t be possible that we have 60, 80 varieties of native corn and we’re allowing the use of genetically modified corn for human consumption.”
For Aguilar — a member of the National Campaign No Country Without Corn (Campaña Nacional Sin Maiz No Hay País), which supports the president’s plan — the fight over GMO corn is about preserving the integrity of the ingredient central to her family’s food and cultural tradition.
“Our diet has been changing from the top down,” she said. “We understand, and I understand, that we have to go up and demand change from the top down.”
“It’s ideological, because in the Mexican government’s political discourse, and especially with this Mexican president, from the beginning of the administration it was about preserving biodiversity, returning to indigenous origins of consumption of corn,” said Sofia Ramírez, Executive Director at México, ¿cómo vamos? (how are we doing?) said in Spanish. “From my perspective, that doesn’t make any sense, because nothing is genetically ‘pure’ anymore.” She said the decree has the potential to disrupt economic ties between the U.S. and Mexico. “The Mexican economy is intimately linked with the American economy,” Ramírez said.
A 2017 study by researchers at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Mexico’s largest and oldest public university, found that the vast majority of tortillas in the country contained traces of genetically modified corn. The cultivation of GMO corn is strictly regulated in Mexico. All producers who want to cultivate genetically modified corn varieties must obtain a permit from the government, and applications are considered on a “case by case” basis.
U.S. lawmakers and the NCGA have pushed the American government to begin formal proceedings against Mexico under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, arguing that the decree is anti-scientific. Genetically modified corn is safe to consume according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association, and other regulatory and research organizations.
The safety of glyphosate for the environment, consumers and workers who come into contact with the herbicide is more complicated. While the EPA backs the safety of the product, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has found that the chemical is “probably carcinogenic” to humans. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and is banned in several countries.
Archeologists have traced representations of corn gods back to most of Mesoamerica’s early civilizations, including the Olmecs, Mayans and Zapotecs. The indigenous religious tradition of celebrating corn and its role in supporting human life is still present today in many parts of Latin America and the U.S.
“This is a very important issue for us,” the Mexican President said. “It is the health of our people. No treaty in the world allows people to sell merchandise that damages health,” in reference to the North American Fair Trade Agreement.