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The U.S. agriculture secretary says Mexico’s GMO ban won’t hurt corn exports

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media file photo

Mexico is phasing out genetically modified corn for human consumption by 2024. But U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he's been assured by his Mexican counterpart that the ban won't shut off the biggest international customer for U.S. corn.

U.S. farmers rely heavily on genetically modified crops. The crops contain altered DNA to withstand viruses or voracious insects. More than 90% of corn grown in the country is genetically modified.

And no country buys more U.S. corn exports than Mexico, where consumer fears about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have led to a ban on the growing of such crops for human consumption by 2024.

That's triggered worries among U.S. farmers about whether they might be on the verge of losing a huge market.

But on Wednesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he'd been reassured by his Mexican counterpart that the country’s corn exports won’t suffer from Mexico’s GMO ban.

"I was certainly pleased to hear from the secretary an understanding that while there may be decisions made in Mexico not to cultivate (genetically engineered) corn, it doesn’t limit the ability of Mexico to import GE corn," Vilsack told reporters near Ankeny, Iowa, "The reality is they can’t produce enough for their needs."

His comments came while he and Mexican Agriculture and Rural Development Secretary Víctor Manuel Villalobos Arámbula toured research sites and farmland together Wednesday in Iowa.

“How many tortillas a day do they eat? Is it over a billion?” Vilsack asked Villalobos.

“One billion a day,” Villalobos said.

“So there’s obviously the need,” Vilsack said. “I certainly appreciate the fact that our corn still has a market opportunity in Mexico, which I think is important.”

On New Year's Eve, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador banned the herbicide glyphosate as well as GMO corn by 2024. The country’s Supreme Court rejected four appeals filed against the order.

That fueled speculation that once GMO corn was phased out in Mexico, U.S. exports of the grain wouldn’t be welcome in that large, next-door market.

Vilsack toured the Griffieon Family Farm, which has about 1,100 acres of owned and rented land. Nick Griffieon, the oldest son of the Griffieon family, said just 10% of the farm’s corn acres are GMO corn and help protect those acres against insects and other pests.

“We’ve always been a little bit heavy on the non-GMO side just because we have a diversified livestock business where we sell meats off the farm,” Griffieon said. “We raise the livestock with non-GMO fed grain.”

But if Mexico ultimately decided not to take GMO corn from the U.S., Griffieon said, “it would kind of turn everything upside down for us.”

Seed industry consolidation

Vilsack told reporters his agency will soon start looking into the consolidation of the seed industry. President Joe Biden issued an executive order in July calling for competition in the seed industry which, according to the executive order, is controlled mostly by four companies. Seed prices keep rising and farmers are limited where they can sell their seeds.

Vilsack said the USDA hasn’t started investigating seed industry consolidation yet because it’s been focused on food processors.

“But I think the president’s executive order also mentions the need for us to take a look at the patent laws,” Vilsack said. “And that would be a place to start.”

Biden’s executive order calls for action to help farmers get more access to markets and fair prices for their crops. Part of that is making sure patents don’t reduce competition in seed markets.

Katie Peikes is Iowa Public Radio's agriculture reporter. She joined IPR in July 2018 as its first-ever western Iowa reporter.
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