Corn is one of the most heated political debates in Mexico, home of the ancient grain that has become the king of grain in the U.S. Corn in America became the country’s most prolific crop thanks largely to farmers embracing genetically modified (GM) varieties that deliver far better yields. By contrast, Mexican farmers have struggled to gain access to GM seeds and now face an outright ban on both GM corn as well as the popular herbicide glyphosate.
The latest decree from the Mexican government states that use of glyphosate will be phased out over the next four years, although glyphosate will not be used in any government-sponsored program during that transition period. The draft also includes an article that requires the revocation of existing and future permits for both the cultivation of GM corn and the use of GM corn for human consumption. The use of GM corn in human consumption would be phased out no later than January 31, 2024. Mexican officials say they plan to meet with producers this week as they decide whether the ban will apply to animal feed as well as products for human consumption. This latest decree follows on from an announcement in June by the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), Mexico’s Environment Ministry, which stated that glyphosate-based herbicides would be phased out of use in the country by 2024 to protect human health and the environment.
Cultivation of GMO corn has been suspended since 2013 in Mexico over lawsuits that claim the varieties threaten biodiversity as well as human health. Those claims have been given support by the government itself, which is headed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in 2018. Critics of the new law banning GM corn say the move threatens the livelihood of Mexican farmers as well as overall food security in the country.
Mexico is currently the largest foreign market for U.S. corn both by export volume and value, according to the USDA. The annual value of U.S. exports to Mexico of corn and corn-based products increased by about +$1.8 billion in nominal terms since 2007. During the 2016-2018 period, the United States sold an annual average of 15.1 million metric tons of corn to Mexico, valued at about $2.8 billion, with additional corn-related products adding around another $1 billion. During that same timeframe, imports accounted for roughly one-third of Mexico’s total corn supply, 98% of which came from the U.S.
Corn is by far the largest crop grown in Mexico but total output pales in comparison to the U.S. Mexican farmers produced an average of 1.1 billion bushels during marketing years 2015/16 to 2017/18, compared to around 14.5 billion bushels by U.S. producers. About 87% of Mexico’s production was white corn, primarily used for human consumption and a major food staple in the country. By contrast, the U.S. mostly produces and exports yellow corn, which are also predominantly GM varieties. Most of Mexico’s yellow corn imports go toward animal feed.
Average corn yields are much higher in the United States than in Mexico, although some
Mexican producers do achieve yields comparable to those in the U.S. Corn yields in the U.S. during 2015–17 averaged 10.9 metric tons per hectare, according to USDA data. For Mexican crops during the same period, annual yields averaged 3.6 metric tons per hectare. Driving the two countries’ yield differences is the varying use of higher-yielding GM varieties.
Corn is considered a symbol of Mexico’s heritage and its a deeply embedded part of national identity. Those opposed to GM corn as well as glyphosate in Mexico say they contaminate the country’s ancient native varieties by introducing contaminants into the environment. This messaging has been picked up by like-minded government officials, including President Obrador and his administration. This thinking is not aligned with many Mexican farmers. Laura Tamayo, spokesperson for Mexico’s National Agriculture Council (CNA), says the lack of access will put the country’s growers at a disadvantage.
Mexican farmers actually embraced GM plants when they were first introduced but have seen efforts to advance their use undone by anti-GMO activists. The pushback from these groups has also affected cotton cultivation in the country. During the administration of President Felipe Calderon in 2009, changes to Mexico’s biosafety law allowed biotech crop developers to experiment with GM corn trials in approved regions in Mexico. Dozens of new permits were considered, but when Calderon left office, large-scale GMO corn plantings were delayed and the industry has faced increasing roadblocks from the following two administrations.
According to specialists, the latest measure will drastically cut the supply of corn to Mexicans and lead to price increases for all corn-based products, possibly even creating food shortages in some parts of the country. The ban on glyphosate could be equally devastating for Mexican farmers as experts say its the only effective option that most can afford. 56 companies in Mexico use the herbicide in their weed-control products, which are widely distributed to small and large farms. Producers are now looking at replacing it with several other herbicides which are both more expensive and potentially more toxic. Some of those will likely be black-market pesticides which circulate surprisingly freely in the country. Others will be turning to controlled burn strategies to control weeds, which brings other high risks such as wildfires. (Sources: USDA, Genetic Literacy Project, Reuters)