Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday dismissed a dire forecast of Mexico slashing corn imports from the U.S. because of a scheduled Mexican ban on genetically modified corn.

Vilsack told Agri-Pulse that comments made to him by Mexican Agriculture Minister Victor Villalobos contradict the comments Deputy Mexican Agriculture Minister Victor Suarez made earlier this week in an interview with Reuters.

“The Deputy Agriculture Minister is entitled to his opinion but we are confident that for the sake of the Mexican livestock industry and to keep inflation in check, corn sales to Mexico will continue as planned given recent conversations with Secretary Villalobos,” Vilsack said in a statement provided to Agri-Pulse.

Villalobos has previously reassured the U.S. that the coming Mexican ban would not impact corn for livestock feed — the majority of corn that the U.S. exports to Mexico.

But Suarez told Reuters the ban — set to begin in January 2024, — will include feed corn and cut U.S. corn exports in half. Suarez said Mexico is mulling deals with U.S., Brazilian and Argentine farmers to provide only non-GMO corn.

It’s a plan that simply will not work, say representatives of the U.S. corn and biotech sector.

They argue farmers in those countries would not be able to supply enough non-GMO corn to meet Mexico’s needs. Canada and Ukraine are also major corn-producing countries, but Mexico would find similar problems in sourcing certified non-GMO corn from those countries as well, according to a recent analysis performed by World Perspectives.

The U.S. exported 16.8 million metric tons of corn to Mexico in 2021, according to USDA data. The World Perspectives analysis estimates the U.S. would only be able to ship 2.7 million tons of non-GMO corn to Mexico if the ban were in place. That’s about 14 million tons of exports the U.S. would lose and create a massive hole that Mexico would not be able to make up anytime soon.

“Farmers (in Brazil, Argentina) and in the U.S. have overwhelmingly adopted biotech traits because of their outstanding yields and environmental benefits compared to non-biotech corn, and they have no interest in going backward due to Mexico’s rejection of science,” The Biotechnology Innovation Organization said in a statement provided to Agri-Pulse.

Genetically modified corn accounts for about 93% of production in the U.S., 92% in Argentina and 88% in Brazil, according to data from BIO.

Almost all of the non-GMO seed corn that will be grown in the U.S. in 2023 has already been contracted to customers in Japan, Europe and elsewhere, American Seed Trade Association President and CEO Andy Lavigne tells Agri-Pulse.

“The (non-GMO) seed we are conditioning today — that was just harvested in the U.S. — most of spoken for,” Lavigne said. “It’s going to markets already.”

“Demand from these sectors is highly inelastic and much of the corn is forward contracted before the growing season, making it practically unavailable for export to Mexico,” the World Perspectives report concluded.

And even if farmers of GMO corn were able to purchase non-GMO seed, they would have to transform how they farm and that would take years, said Lavigne.

“You’re asking that farmer to change his system,” he said. “That farmer could go into an identity-preserved system. You’ve got to find an elevator to keep it separate. You’ve got to find trucking and rail that can keep it separate and that doesn’t happen in one season — or two seasons.”

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U.S. corn farmers are now buying the seed they will plant next spring and then harvest next September. It’s also the corn they will be marketing when the Mexican ban on biotech corn is slated to begin in January 2024.

National Corn Growers Association President Tom Haag, who operates a 1,100-acre farm in Minnesota, said the task of switching to non-GMO would be daunting, and certainly impossible to do immediately.

“Farmers are not going to switch to just non-GMO to satisfy Mexico,” he said.

One corn sector official who asked not to be named said U.S. producers “won't switch even if they could get double the price, and it would cost double to produce so it's a wash at best.”

Not only would Mexico not get nearly enough corn, but it would begin paying sharply higher prices for the little it can get, according to the World Perspectives report. In the first year of the ban — 2024 — Mexican importers would see prices jump by 26%.

“When we’re looking at the global challenges we have with food security, food prices and climate change and you’re going to take a tool like (biotechnology) off the table?” Lavigne said. “It’s very concerning to our industry when we look at our trading partner to the south.”

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