As the US Pressures Mexico to Import GM Corn, Can It Preserve Its Traditional Varieties? | Civil Eats

As the US Pressures Mexico to Import GM Corn, Can It Preserve Its Traditional Varieties?

In this week’s Field Report: Trade wars that impact biodiversity, food companies’ climate commitments fall short, and more.

A Mexican farmer holds a basket of corn to sell.

In Mexico, a coalition of Indigenous, farm, and environmental advocacy groups have been working for decades to safeguard the genetic diversity of the crop that is a cornerstone of both their diets and their cultural and ecological heritage: corn.

Just two years ago, they celebrated a major victory, when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued the first executive order that directed the government to “revoke and refrain from granting authorizations” for the use of genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexican diets and for “release into the environment” by January 2024. While growing GM corn in Mexico has not been allowed for 25 years, millions of tons of the corn enter the country each year via imports. The order also called for a complete phaseout of the controversial herbicide glyphosate by that date.

“It leaves the door open to GM corn coming from the U.S., and that, from our perspective, still poses a risk.”

“With the aim of achieving self-sufficiency and food sovereignty, our country should aim to establish sustainable and culturally appropriate agricultural production, through the use of agroecological practices and inputs that are safe for human health, the country’s biocultural diversity, and the environment, as well as congruent with the agricultural traditions of Mexico,” López Obrador wrote in the order.

Now, however, in the face of U.S. pressure, Mexico is weakening the ban, which was in part intended to prevent genetically modified seed from contaminating native varieties.

Because the executive order was short on specifics, it was unclear from the start what it would mean for the 17 million tons of mostly GM corn exported to Mexico from the U.S. every year—used primarily for livestock feed. And since last fall, U.S. officials, including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, have been meeting with Mexican officials to advocate for its reversal.

Vilsack and others said the recent order violated the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, a fact that some analyses of the agreement’s language dispute. As officials negotiated, preliminary reports suggested López Obrador’s government would stick to including corn used for livestock feed but delay the start date of the ban to 2025 to alleviate U.S. concerns.

Then, at the end of January, the U.S. agriculture trade chief demanded Mexican officials provide scientific evidence to support the bans on both GM corn and glyphosate by February 14. And finally, last week, the Mexican government issued an order that came with new clarifications. Officials said the ban on GM corn would still apply to corn used in flour, dough, or tortillas but not to livestock feed or industrial uses.

“It leaves the door open to GM corn coming from the U.S., and that, from our perspective, still poses a risk,” said Gustavo Ampugnani, the executive director of Greenpeace Mexico, in an interview with Civil Eats.

One 2004 commission focused on GM corn and biodiversity found clear evidence that transgenic DNA had been imported in U.S. corn.

Advocates worry that because the grain itself is a seed, those seeds will end up getting planted somewhere. Then the GM varieties, which are bred for traits including resistance to glyphosate and to include a protein that kills certain insects, will cross-pollinate with native corn varieties, called landraces.

“It’s not just hypothetical,” Ampugnani said, pointing to research from the early 2000s that found transgenic DNA in corn plants grown in Oaxaca. “The only explanation for this to happen was that the grain that we were importing from the U.S. was being used as seeds.” Past reports have shown those imported seeds can be viable, even when intended for use as feed.

Ampugnani and advocates from the many organizations he works with say that protecting the country’s native landraces is especially critical right now, given that economic, environmental, and other pressures on small- and medium-sized corn growers could lead to them abandoning farming.

“The ancient cultures who were living in Mexico and Central America domesticated the corn in such a way that you can find corn for very specific temperatures, soils, and altitudes in Mexico. So, we are talking about biodiversity. We are talking about plant diversity, but a special plant which is used for food as well,” he said. “So, from this ecological point of view, Mexico has to do as much as possible to protect these landraces from being contaminated with GE varieties.”

Critics of López Obrador’s ban say Mexico needs the corn imports to feed its citizens and keep the economy humming and that there is no evidence that shows GM corn is detrimental to the environment or human health. One 2004 commission focused on GM corn and biodiversity found clear evidence that transgenic DNA had been imported in U.S. corn—and that those genes were already present in and would continue to cross-contaminate Mexican landraces. But the commission also found that the introduction “of a few individual transgenes is unlikely to have any major biological effect on genetic diversity in maize landraces.”

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Interestingly, in his original order phasing out GM corn, López Obrador cited reliance on the “precautionary principle” as a key component of international biodiversity treaties that “have determined that the authorities observe said principle to prevent serious or irreversible damage.” That principle basically holds that when evidence of harm is not conclusive, it’s better to be safe than sorry. But U.S. policy on genetic engineering and pesticide use tends to follow an opposite rule.

If the evidence of a crop or chemical’s harm is not bulletproof, agencies tend to allow its use until harm is sufficiently documented. With genetics and biodiversity, that approach could be especially risky, since the same 2004 commission found that “removing transgenes that have introgressed widely into landraces is likely to be very difficult and may in fact be impossible.”

“Right now, while we have authorities that are more like-minded, this is our opportunity to make it better.”

As the issue has continued to percolate, anti-GM advocacy organizations across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada have joined forces to protest the Biden administration’s stance and support Mexico’s original order. Groups in the U.S. have called the American stance “21st century imperialism” and pointed to an economic opportunity for U.S. farmers to respond to demand for non-GM corn.

On the ground in Mexico, Ampugnani said that their coalition was digesting the latest development and would be ready to come together to figure out their next steps next week.

“Right now, while we have authorities that are more like-minded, this is our opportunity to make it better,” he said.

Read More:
Comic: Adapting Corn for Tortillas—and New Markets—in the Pacific Northwest
Can Farm-to-Table Tortillas Help Sustain Mexico’s Corn Heritage?

Bee Breeding. In other genetic-diversity news, a new study conducted by researchers with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) found an “alarming” lack of it among honeybees in the U.S., threatening the sustainability of the country’s beekeeping. In recent years, honeybees have faced a multitude of threats to their health and survival. Pesticide use, the loss of nutritious forage, climate change events like droughts, and pests and parasites have all contributed to a high rate of annual colony loss and lower honey production. In a press release, ARS researchers explained that a lack of genetic diversity makes U.S. honeybees more vulnerable to those threats. The researchers studied approximately 1,063 bees from hobbyist and commercial beekeepers in 45 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and two U.S. territories (Guam and Puerto Rico) and found the nation’s managed populations rely almost entirely on a single evolutionary lineage. Ninety-four percent belonged to the North Mediterranean C lineage, 3 percent belonged to the West Mediterranean M lineage, and 3 percent belonged to the African A lineage. The research team is now looking at solutions, such as diversifying breeding stations.

Read More:
In the Face of Numerous Threats, Bees Are Producing Less Honey
Civil Eats TV: Let Them Bee

Corporate Climate Accountability. In April 2021, global meat behemoth JBS took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to announce a goal of becoming a net-zero company by 2040. “Bacon, chicken wings, and steak with net-zero emissions,” the ad declared. “It’s possible.” However, according to an advertising watchdog organization’s ruling, based on the company’s plans so far, it’s really not—and that means the company is misleading consumers. JBS is appealing a decision by the National Advertising Division (NAD) of BBB National Programs found that, despite its progress on setting climate targets, the company’s plans and current work to meet those targets do not match its bold climate claims.

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It’s just one of many examples of how food—and especially meat—companies’ climate commitments are coming under increased scrutiny. In a new study out of Europe, researchers investigated the net-zero claims of Swedish fast-food chain Max Burgers AB and found the company’s promises had many of the same problems as JBS. It relied heavily on offsetting emissions while publicly conflating that strategy with real greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The company also promoted reduced emissions based on relative numbers (emissions per unit of food sold) while the company’s overall emissions tripled between 2007 and 2021. “We conclude that even seemingly progressive corporate net-zero pledges and claims become problematic if they distract from real reductions and justify carbon-intensive lifestyles,” the researchers wrote.

At the same time, a report released last week looked at the net-zero claims made by 24 global companies. The authors estimated that far short of net-zero, their pledges will only reduce emissions by 36 percent, because of an overreliance on offsets and a lack of concrete, immediate actions in place to match long-term targets. Companies across eight sectors including tech and consumer goods were included, but food companies—including JBS—had some of the lowest scores.

This is all happening as agricultural lobbyists are fighting to defeat a proposal by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that would require public food companies to report emissions throughout their supply chains.

Read More:
New Report Says Plans to Reduce Methane Fall Short on Big Meat and Dairy
Food Companies Are Not Counting All of Their Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Pesticide Protections for Farmworkers. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it will rescind Trump-era provisions that weakened a standard meant to protect farmworkers from being sprayed by pesticides while on the job. As part of the Obama EPA’s update to the Worker Protection Standard in 2015, the agency established an “Application Exclusion Zone,” an area that is off limits to workers while harmful pesticides are being sprayed. Trump’s EPA shrunk the size of the zone and changed the rules so that it could not extend beyond property lines, which meant workers would not be protected from spray just over a field border. Now, Biden’s EPA reviewed the provisions and found that those provisions weakened the standard in a way that could harm workers. Agency officials are proposing reverting to most of the provisions of the 2015 rule; the new rules are available for public comment for 60 days. “Farmworker justice is environmental justice, and we’re continuing to take action to make sure these communities are protected equally under the law from pesticide exposure,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a press release.

Read More:
Changes to Federal Rules Could Expose More Farmworkers to Pesticides
Why Aren’t Federal Agencies Enforcing Pesticide Rules That Protect Farmworkers?

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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