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A matter of Mexican maize and not so free trade agreements | 29 April 2024

A matter of Mexican maize and not so free trade agreements

by Lois Ross

Sometimes you can change the name of something, but the roots or substance of the matter do not change.

So be it with free trade agreements. First we had the US Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Then came the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And following threats in 2017 by then US President Donald Trump that he wanted to cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada ended up buying into the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA).

The impact of free trade on agriculture and small farmers across the Americas has brought anything but prosperity. This rabble column from a few years back chronicles some of the damage.

When the CUSMA was signed it brought with it additional clauses to include knowledge, data, and intellectual property issues.

We are now seeing how trade agreements can be used to limit the sovereignty and intellectual property rights of the less powerful countries — and this includes CUSMA and Mexican corn. This trade agreement is now pushing for the use of genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico.

This is a long simmering dispute, and entails the struggle over maintaining traditional varieties of corn and prohibiting the entry or use of genetically modified corn across borders. Mexico has for the past several years been working to ban the use of genetically modified corn in Mexico, as well as the chemical glyphosate, commonly known as Bayer/Monsanto’s Roundup. It is now common knowledge that the growth of GM crops is often linked to heavy use of farm chemicals. The ad slogan, ‘Roundup Ready,’ tells all ! This rabble column explains the perils.

On February 13, 2023, the Mexican government of Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador (aka AMLO), via Presidential Decree, implemented measures to control the use of genetically modified corn in Mexico. Among the measures applied were:

  • an immediate ban on the use of GM corn for human consumption (white corn intended for use in dough and tortillas);
  • the revocation of existing GM corn authorizations and a halt to future approvals;
  • a phase-out of the use of GM corn for animal feed and processed food ingredients.

Mexico’s decree also phases out the use of the herbicide glyphosate but this measure is now being challenged by the US and Canada under the CUSMA. Mexico already bans the cultivation of GM corn in Mexico, and modified its timeline for application of the Presidential Decree to March of 2024. Mexico also noted that the exclusion of GM corn imports for cattle and feed would be phased out as non-GM corn becomes available. The ban on cultivation and imports for food of GM corn is now in effect — and so is the trade dispute launched by the US and Canada.

The Mexico Presidential Decree states:

“The main purpose of these measures is to protect the rights to health and a healthy environment, native corn, the milpa, biocultural wealth, peasant communities and gastronomic heritage, as well as to ensure a nutritious, sufficient and quality diet.”

—Decree establishing various actions regarding glyphosate and genetically modified corn, President of the United Mexican States, February 13, 2023.

Mexico’s Presidential Decree might come as news to most Canadians, since these types of concerns rarely make front page news in Canada.

The issue of GM corn in Mexico has been bubbling away on the back burner for quite some time. The 2023 decree is the most recent measure being taken to ensure that maiz, a crop of major cultural significance and a staple of the Mexican diet, is protected. This follows the hard-won right a few years ago to prevent GM corn from being grown in Mexico. This most recent measure will also mean that it cannot be brought across borders, meaning imported into the country.

Mexico is attempting to close the circle to maintain traditional corn seed varieties and biodiversity, and importantly, to apply measures that it believes will ensure the health of the Mexican population.

Meanwhile, along the way, there have been powerful efforts made to prevent the Mexican government actions to exclude GM corn from the fields and marketplaces of Mexico.

The most recent effort is the filing of a trade challenge by the United States and supported by Canada. The United States has long had concerns about anything that might hinder its exports. The US exports an estimated 17 million tonnes of corn to Mexico. Those exports are worth about $5 billion annually. Meanwhile, Canada does not export any amount of corn. So it appears that, once again, Canada is simply tagging along with our closest southern neighbour. What’s on the table for Canada?

More than 90 per cent of the corn grown in the US, and 88 per cent of the corn grown in Canada, is genetically engineered. The US accounts for more than 40 per cent of the acres seeded with GM crops globally, while Canada accounts for 6.6 per cent. Increasingly the pressure is on to accept GM crops, in the name of food production — a common refrain over the years to pressure publics to accept corporate development of new technologies.

This primer, prepared by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network coalition, (CBAN) is well worth the read for additional information on this trade dispute.

The US is likely fighting Mexico’s GM corn ban because it fears that, if Mexico is successful, many other countries may follow suit. Given the amount that the US invests to promote and pressure the use of GM crops, that is indeed a likelihood.

Meanwhile, the struggle over GM corn is more than 25 years on…

In 1998 the Mexican government, fearing the impact of GM corn on its cultural heritage and biodiversity, issued a moratorium on the growing of GM corn in Mexico. That move was a precautionary measure, but was lifted in 2009 by the Mexican government of the day, led by Felipe Calderón. What followed was a court challenge by a Mexican network, Demanda Colectiva Maíz (Collective Corn Lawsuit). The Collective won its court case, and in 2021 the Supreme Court upheld the legal decision against appeals from some of the world’s largest seed and pesticide companies, namely Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta, Corteva-Dupont and Dow. The ban on growing GM corn in Mexico was a major victory for agricultural and consumer movements around the globe.

As part of the actions undertaken to organize against the use of GM corn in Mexico, the popular international small farmer coalition, La Via Campesina, published in 2013 the open letter to then Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Titled the Manifesto in Defence of Maize this document helps explain the reasons behind the struggle to ban GM corn in Mexico.

It reads in part:

“The planting of transgenic maize in Mexico is a historic crime against the peoples of maize, against biodiversity and food sovereignty, against ten thousand years of indigenous and peasant agriculture that bequeathed this seed for the wellbeing of all the peoples of the world.”

– From the Manifesto in Defense of Maize, October 2009

Despite the clear links between health, Indigenous culture and the milpa, the dispute is ongoing.

Canada has signed United Nations Declarations which make our aligning with the US on this CUSMA trade dispute questionable, if not hypocritical. Our country is a signatory to both the UN Convention on Biological Diversity as well as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In its notice to join the consultation on the CUSMA trade dispute alongside the US, the Deputy Minister of International Trade, Rob Stewart, wrote:

“When a key trading partner such as Mexico does not authorize biotechnology applications for Canadian agricultural exports, this creates an asymmetry in North American regulatory conditions that can lead to trade disruptions. Product developers also tend to refrain from commercializing innovative agricultural tools until they receive approvals in all major markets. Thus, the approach taken by Mexico in its decisions to reject biotechnology product applications may have a significant economic impact on Canadian producers, developers of innovative agricultural technologies, as well as consequences for trade flows into and out of Canada.”

Recently, more than 31 Canadian organizations signed a statement in solidarity with Mexico and the right of the people of Mexico to determine their relationship with corn and to prevent the contamination of its maize crops by GM corn varieties. The statement is insightful, and definitely well-worth the read. The statement is clear in its opposition to Canada’s involvement in this trade dispute but also speaks volumes regarding the concern over GM seed and crops.

Among the organizations who have signed on to the solidarity statement are organic organizations and farm groups, but also non-profits such as Inter Pares, Friends of the Earth, and Idle No More, alongside unions such as the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and health groups like Prevent Cancer Now and Safe Food Matters.

The organizations listed underscore the level of concern over the U.S. and Canada’s current and future agenda.