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Mexico must stand up to agribusiness oligopolies on GM corn ban

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Photo: leyink / flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED | 12 December 2023

Mexico must stand up to agribusiness oligopolies on GM corn ban

by Manuel Pérez-Rocha

This coming January 1 marks the 30th anniversary of the trade pact originally known as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), now called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). It also marks the 30th anniversary of the historic Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico that denounced the pact over concerns about threats to indigenous people and food security.

Three decades later, it’s clear the Zapatistas were right.

For Mexico, NAFTA meant abandoning food sovereignty in favor of imports of basic grains, causing an increase in inequality and migration. It meant abandoning the countryside and opening borders to trade, creating a vacuum that organized crime has filled.

But, for a handful of transnational agribusiness corporations — such as Bimbo, Maseca, Monsanto, and Cargill — NAFTA has delivered huge profits.

La Jornada reports that, today, food shortages and dependence continue to worsen while imports of basic grains in Mexico are growing to unprecedented levels — accounting for more than half of consumption.

In 2020, the three North American governments renegotiated some aspects of NAFTA. But as La Jornada op-ed coordinator and columnist Luis Hernandez Navarro explained then, “in the agricultural area, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is more of the same, but worse. It is a central instrument for oligopolies to strip control of farmers’ seeds from those who have developed and cared for them for thousands of years. It’s a key piece of the neoliberal order in the region.”

Thus, under the USMCA, Mexico now has to defend itself tooth and nail against plans of the United States, supported by Canada, to flood the country with genetically modified corn.

Last August, the United States filed a claim under the treaty’s dispute settlement framework over a February 13, 2023 Mexican government decree that prohibits the use of biotech corn in tortillas and dough and phases out its use in all products for human and animal consumption.

The U.S. government charges that Mexico’s anti-GM corn policy lacks sufficient scientific basis and undermines the market access that the country agreed to in the trade treaty.

This attack on Mexican sovereignty has reactivated the trinational solidarity of Mexican, American, and Canadian organizations — a transcontinental bond strengthened in the decades since NAFTA was negotiated behind the people’s backs.

U.S. and Canadian civil society groups are supporting the successful efforts of the “Sin Maíz No Hay País” (“Without Corn There’s No Country”) campaign to protect cultural heritage and biodiversity by preventing the planting of GM corn and the use of the herbicide glyphosate over potential risks to human health, the environment, and the country’s biocultural diversity. In one form of solidarity, they’ve submitted a series of statements to the trade dispute process.

As Karen Hansen-Kuhn of the U.S.-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy puts it, “whether or not the dispute panel accepts these statements, the range of topics covered will enrich the public debate on how trade rules could limit or enable sustainable solutions that promote public health, human rights, and economic opportunities.”

The organizations’ statements emphasize the insufficient research on the safety of GM corn for human consumption and the risks of glyphosate. They also emphasize the contradiction between the U.S. claim against Mexico and other key provisions of the treaty, which the United States should not be treating as mere decorations.

For example, Article 32.5 of the USMCA states that the treaty does not prevent a party from adopting or maintaining a measure that it deems necessary to comply with its legal obligations to indigenous peoples, as well as protections for biological diversity in the chapter on the environment.

The statements emphasize the cultural and environmental risks of GM corn’s proliferation in Mexico, considering the diversity of over 59 native corn varieties that indigenous peoples have constantly labored to diversify and adapt. They explain that the Mexican policy does not discriminate against U.S. producers, and in fact, these producers are profiting from increased exports of non-GM corn to Mexico.

A support statement led by Rick Arnold of the Council of Canadians — a network of tens of thousands of members from coast to coast and supported by Common Frontiers, a broad network of Canadian organizations — critiques the cozy relationship between their own government and large agribusinesses.

“As Canada joins the U.S. in challenging Mexico to stop its planned phase-out of genetically modified corn for human consumption,” they write, “a too-close collaboration between federal government departments and the biotechnology industry has been exposed […] CropLife Canada was instrumental in Canada’s new decision to remove regulation from many coming gene-edited GMOs.”

Canadian organizations demand that their government support Mexico in its efforts to gradually eliminate the importation of GM corn, and are calling upon the USMCA dispute panel to rule in favor of protecting health, small farmers, and environmental well-being, as Mexico has done for several millennia.

Trinational civil society organizations warned 30 years ago that the free trade model could destroy age-old farming traditions. Today they are demanding that Mexico stand up to the pressure of the agribusiness oligopolies and stop what could be the final blow to Mexican food culture. Long live international solidarity.

Manuel Pérez-Rocha is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies.