Politics|U.S. to Challenge Mexican Ban on Genetically Modified Corn
The Biden administration said it would request talks with Mexico over a brewing trade fight.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said on Monday that 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 rankled farmers and threatened a profitable export.
Mexico has planned to phase out the use of genetically modified corn, as well as an herbicide called glyphosate, by 2024. About 90 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified.
Senior administration officials have expressed concerns to the Mexican government about the measures for more than a year in virtual and in-person meetings, saying they could disrupt millions of dollars of agricultural trade and cause serious harm to U.S. producers. Mexico is the second-largest market for U.S. corn, after China.
On Monday, U.S. officials said that they were requesting consultations over the issue with their Mexican counterparts under the terms of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which governs the terms of trade in North America. Biden officials said that parties to that agreement, which was signed in 2020, had committed to basing their regulation on scientific research, and that Mexico’s ban on genetically modified corn did not conform to those promises.
The consultations are the first step in a process that could lead to the United States bringing a formal dispute against Mexico. The parties must meet to discuss the issue within 30 days, and, if the talks are not successful, the United States could turn to a separate dispute settlement procedure under the trade agreement. That process could result in the United States placing tariffs on Mexican products, if no other resolution can be reached.
Senior officials with the Office of the United States Trade Representative said they were focused on finding a resolution through the talks at hand. But in a statement, the office said that it would “consider all options, including taking formal steps to enforce U.S. rights under the U.S.M.C.A.” if the issue was not resolved.
Mexico bought more than 20 million metric tons of corn from the United States in the 2021-22 marketing year, which runs from September to August, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The National Corn Growers Association has said that the impending ban would be “catastrophic” for American corn producers and Mexican consumers alike and undermine the principles of the trade agreement. The industry has maintained that bioengineered corn is safe for human consumption, contrary to health concerns cited by Mexican officials.
Scientists, too, widely believe that genetically modified foods are safe, but consumers and Mexican officials remain wary of genetically modified crops.
In a statement on Monday, the Mexican Ministry of Economy said its decree was aimed at ensuring that tortillas are made with native Mexican corn varieties, in an effort to ensure the biodiversity of the corn that is grown in the country. It said it would draw on data and evidence to demonstrate that the ban had not had an impact on commerce, and was consistent with the trade agreement.
In the United States, the vast majority of corn planted has been bioengineered to be resistant to herbicides and insects. Bt corn, for example, contains a gene from a soil bacterium that kills the European corn borer, an insect that feeds on maize and other grasses.
Corn can also be modified to be resistant to glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in agriculture and lawn maintenance in the United States. Glyphosate-based products like Roundup are sprayed on fields, killing weeds and leaving the resistant crops intact.
While the Environmental Protection Agency has said the herbicides pose no risk to human health, overuse can wreak ecological havoc in areas where natural plant species are not resistant to the chemical compound. Environmental groups have warned that glyphosate can be particularly deadly for pollinators like bees and butterflies.
It is illegal to grow genetically modified corn in Mexico, where maize was first domesticated 8,700 years ago and where white corn is a staple crop. Supporters of Mexico’s ban worry that any imports of bioengineered corn would threaten native species, as the varieties can cross-pollinate.
The Mexican government in February moved to soften its restrictions, saying it would allow genetically modified corn to be brought into the country for animal feed and industrial use, though not for human consumption. Tom Vilsack, the U.S. agriculture secretary, said he was “disappointed” in the decision.
It also remains to be seen whether domestic corn production in Mexico is sufficient to replace imports, the eventual goal of the Mexican government. Last year, farmers in Mexico grew 27.3 million metric tons, about 38 percent below domestic demand. One analysis projected that, should the ban remain in place, corn costs could rise by 20 percent in Mexico and increase rates of food insecurity.