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Corn has deep roots in Mexico. Now efforts to ban GMO corn place culture and trade at odds

Cupped hands hold reddish and white grains of corn. Mexico has dozens of native corn varieties, including this Bolita Belatove from Oaxaca.
Dana Cronin
Special to Harvest Public Media
Mexico has dozens of native corn varieties, including this Bolita Belatove from Oaxaca, which Emmanuel Galvan holds. Galvan works with heirloom corn varieties and says he understands President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's reasoning for banning GMO corn.

Touting its long history and cultural significance, Mexico’s president says genetically modified corn has no place in his country. That puts Mexico and the U.S. on a collision course over a major trade agreement.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is throwing down the gauntlet when it comes to corn, pitting food sovereignty against the country’s trade agreements.

His proposed ban on genetically modified corn has upset U.S. corn farmers, trade groups and officials and has prompted the U.S. to establish a third party dispute panel to help resolve the disagreement. And yet, López Obrador gives no signs of backing off — making it clear he believes corn, or maize, is a cultural touchstone worth fighting for.

“We will continue campaigning against junk foods that affect our health, including GMO corn,” López Obrador said in a speech given in Spanish earlier this year. “We must first take care of our health and protect native corn varieties.”

Mexico is considered the birthplace of maize, which is still the most extensive crop grown in the country. There are dozens of native corn varieties and many efforts in place to protect them. “Sin Maíz No Hay País,” which translates to “Without Corn, There Is No Country,” is a campaign and phrase used to garner support for protecting native corn varieties.

“Corn is quintessentially Mexican,” said Diego Marroquín Bitar, a fellow for the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, a non-profit that promotes trade between the two countries. “It plays a really important role in the construction of the Mexican identity, and I think that's where the president comes from.”

López Obrador recently released a revised draft of Mexico’s national food production standard, stipulating that no genetically modified white corn is to be used in corn dough, or masa, for tortillas and tostadas.

Many Mexican stakeholders oppose the ban, including the Consejo Nacional Agropecuario de México, which represents the country’s agribusinesses. But much of the Mexican population supports the president’s decree, according to Marroquín Bitar.

“We're dealing with a very popular president that's just a master in public narrative and guiding the public discourse,” he said.

Mexico's 'silent backbone'

A man in a gray shirt, baseball cap and apron stands with reddish and white grains of corn cupped in his hands. Emmanuel Galvan imports heirloom corn varieties from all over Mexico. Galvan and his team hand press the heirloom corn into tortillas and other masa-based foods.
Dana Cronin
Special to Harvest Public Media
Emmanuel Galvan imports heirloom corn varieties from all over Mexico. Galvan and his team hand press the heirloom corn into tortillas and other masa-based foods.

Emmanuel Galvan is the owner of micro molino and tortilleria Bolita Masa in Berkeley, California. He buys high-quality heirloom corn varieties from different regions in Mexico.

“Heirloom corn is so special,” he said. “It, over millennia and through generations of families, has been bred to grow in specific regions and is pest resistant and drought resistant.”

Galvan and his team hand press the heirloom corn into tortillas and other masa-based foods.

His inspiration comes from his Mexican heritage, he said. Galvan grew up in the U.S. after his parents emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico. He says working with Mexican maíz has helped him celebrate that part of his identity.

“I think part of why I work with maíz is to reclaim this thing that I shunned for so long and was really looking down on,” he recalled, his voice filled with emotion. “I was trained by society to look down on this food that was other, right? It was this other thing that was foreign and kind of gross.”

Now, Galvan calls maíz Mexico’s silent backbone. He said he understands why López Obrador is going to such great lengths to protect that part of his country’s cultural identity. Not only for cultural reasons, but also for the sake of the country’s health.

“Corn is just another way of producing carbohydrates and sugar in the U.S., while maíz in Mexico is a staple of the everyday diet,” he said. “It is most people's main source of protein and fiber. It's most people's main form of B vitamins and amino acids.”

A trade partner at stake

Courtesy Lance Lillibridge
Corn from Lance Lillibridge's Iowa farm on a Fourth of July. He said he's concerned about a Mexican ban on GMO corn. "If this happens and they set this precedent, then what other countries are going to do this? What other world leaders we're going to say, 'Well, geez, Mexico did it, we should do it.'" Lillibridge told Harvest Public Mediain March.

More than 90% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. It's been engineered to resist things like pests and drought and to tolerate herbicides. Mexico is the second-highest importer of that corn, behind China, bringing in 15.4 million metric tons of it just last year.

“If we can't export the majority of our (genetically modified) corn, we'd have to find other available markets to put it,” said Nancy Martinez with the National Corn Growers Association. “That's not something that you can stand up overnight.”

The U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) stipulates that, in order to implement a ban on GMO corn, Mexico must provide scientific evidence that the crop is harming people’s health.

“There's actually studies that have looked into this and have found basically nothing,” said U.S.-Mexico Foundation’s Marroquín Bitar. He added that a ban could impact Mexico’s economy far more than its health, including everything from the price of food to the unemployment rate.

In August, the U.S. Trade Representative established a third-party dispute panel that will help resolve the issue once and for all.

“Through the USMCA dispute panel, we seek to resolve our concerns and help ensure consumers can continue to access safe and affordable food and agricultural products,” said Ambassador Katherine Tai.

Marroquín Bitar said the panel’s final decision could come as soon as March 2024, but will likely take longer.

“This is a litmus test for Mexico when it comes to USMCA,” he said. “You have ideology on one side, and you have very strict, well-defined technical criteria. What's going to matter more in the end?”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

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