– Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador quietly rocked the agribusiness world with his New Year’s Eve decree to phase out use of the herbicide glyphosate and the cultivation of genetically modified corn. His administration sent an even stronger aftershock two weeks later, clarifying that the government would also phase out GM corn imports in three years and the ban would include not just corn for human consumption but yellow corn destined primarily for livestock. Under NAFTA, the United States has seen a 400% increase in corn exports to Mexico, the vast majority genetically modified yellow dent corn.
The bold policy moves fulfill a campaign promise by Mexico’s populist president, whose agricultural policies have begun to favor Mexican producers, particularly small-scale farmers, and protect consumers alarmed by the rise of obesity and chronic diseases associated with high-fat, high-sugar processed foods.
In banning glyphosate, the decree cites the precautionary principle and the growing body of scientific research showing the dangers of the chemical, the active ingredient in Bayer/Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The government had stopped imports of glyphosate since late 2019, citing the World Health Organization’s warning that the chemical is a “probable carcinogen.”
The prohibitions on genetically modified corn, which appear toward the end of the decree, have more profound implications. The immediate ban on permits for cultivation of GM corn formalizes current restrictions, ordered by Mexican courts in 2013 when a citizen lawsuit challenged government permitting of experimental GM corn planting by Monsanto and other multinational seed companies on the grounds of the contamination threat they posed to Mexico’s rich store of native corn varieties. The import ban cites the same environmental threats but goes further, advancing the López Obrador administration’s goals of promoting greater food self-sufficiency in key crops. As the decree states:
“[W]ith the objective of achieving self-sufficiency and food sovereignty, our country must be oriented towards establishing sustainable and culturally adequate 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.”
Chronicle of a decree foretold
Such policies should come as no surprise. In his campaign, López Obrador committed to such measures. Unprecedented support from rural voters were critical to his landslide 2018 electoral victory, with his new Movement for National Renewal (Morena) claiming majorities in both houses of Congress.
Still, industry and U.S. government officials seemed shocked that their lobbying had failed to stop López Obrador from acting. The pressure campaign was intense, as Carey Gillam explained in a February 16 Guardian expose on efforts by Bayer/Monsanto, industry lobbyist CropLife, and U.S. government officials to deter the glyphosate ban. According to email correspondence obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity through Freedom of Information Act requests, officials in the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and office of the U.S. Trade Representative were in touch with Bayer representatives and warned Mexican officials that restrictions could be in violation of the revised North American Free Trade Agreement, now rebranded by the Trump Administration as the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA).
According to the emails, CropLife president Chris Novak last March sent a letter to Robert Lighthizer, USTR’s ambassador, arguing that Mexico’s actions would be “incompatible with Mexico’s obligations under USMCA.” In May, Lighthizer followed through, writing to Graciela Márquez Colín, Mexico’s minister of economy, warning that GMO crop and glyphosate matters threatened to undermine “the strength of our bilateral relationship.” An earlier communication argued that Mexico’s actions on glyphosate, which Mexico had ceased importing, were “without a clear scientific justification.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Victor Suárez, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food and Competitiveness. “There is rigorous scientific evidence of the toxicity of this herbicide,” he told me, citing the WHO findings and an extensive literature review carried out by Mexico’s biosafety commission Cibiogem.
And even though most imported U.S. corn is used for animal feed, not direct human consumption, a study carried out by María Elena Álvarez-Buylla, now head of CONACYT, the government’s leading scientific body, documented the presence of GM corn sequences in many of Mexico’s most common foods. Some 90% of tortillas and 82% of other common corn-based foods contained GM corn. Mexico needs to be especially cautious, according to Suárez, because corn is so widely consumed, with Mexicans on average eating one pound of corn a day, one of the highest consumption levels in the world.”