U.S. and Mexican officials met behind closed doors last week to discuss Mexico’s ban on tortilla makers using genetically modified white corn, even as Mexico tries to publicly justify its action with claims that the grain is a threat to the country.

The Mexican government hosted a webinar last week to explain why it is intent on keeping genetically modified corn and the herbicide glyphosate out of the country.

Alejandro Espinoza Calderón, the head of Mexico’s Commission for Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms, and three university researchers spoke for more than two hours on the threat of GM corn and glyphosate to Mexicans, often linking the two as a combined commodity.

While Calderón and the researchers went into great depth about desires to protect the biodiversity of Mexico’s plants and animals and the proliferation of genetically modified DNA in seeds being used by Mexican farmers, they did little to make the case that there is a health risk to Mexican consumers, according to analyses of the webinar done and reviewed by U.S. industry and government officials.

Mexico could legally justify its anti-biotech stance “as long as they do a rigorous, science-based risk assessment to show there is some sort of danger to its people, but they haven’t done that,” said one U.S. seed industry official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Instead, the presenters on the government webinar focused on a vague threat to the variety of plant and animal life in Mexico and the country’s right to protect its sovereignty over decisions on what is safe for Mexicans, according to a translation.

As for corn seeds, U.S. companies are not selling genetically modified varieties to farmers in Mexico, where the government is not issuing permits to plant them. The U.S. does sell GM cotton seeds to Mexican buyers. While Mexican farmers may be using GM corn seeds illegally, that’s not something the country can blame the U.S. government for, one industry source said.

Still, Ana Laura Wegier, a researcher with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) who spoke for the majority of the webinar, focused on the threat of seeds to Mexico’s genetic and cultural biodiversity.

“The people who maintain diversity in the field every year, alive socially and biologically, have the right to decide how and when they accept a risk to the diversity of maize and its environment,” said one of her slides during the presentation. “Government monitoring needs to be systematic and detect all possible events.”

If Mexico’s corn is “unhealthy,” she said, then Mexicans will be “unhealthy.”

Another UNAM researcher, Omar Arellano Aguilar, said a 2020 opinion by the Mexican Supreme Court stressed the right of the government to form its own “precautionary principles” that do not need evidence to show there are health or environmental threats.

Mexico has been threatening for years to ban the importation of GM corn and glyphosate and it partially did that on Feb. 13, prohibiting tortilla makers there from using GM white corn. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a presidential decree to essentially ban imports of GM white corn while vowing to gradually prevent the entry of GM corn for feed and industrial uses.

The Biden administration has not technically entered into a dispute with Mexico under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, but the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has taken the initial steps that could lead to such a dispute. The Office of the USTR announced last month it was seeking “technical consultations” with Mexico under the USMCA’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures chapter. If the USTR is not satisfied with the results of those talks, it can start an official dispute process.

It's still unclear if that will happen. The “technical consultations” period could end on April 7, but the USTR could also decide that an extension of those talks is warranted. One U.S. government official described the only in-person meeting between both sides last week in Mexico City as “productive.”

Another U.S. government official told Agri-Pulse that a second meeting between both sides before April 7 is unlikely.

Chuck GrassleySen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa (Photo: Joy Philippi)

U.S. lawmakers and industry representatives are losing patience. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, recently demanded that USTR begin the dispute process immediately after the April 7 deadline.

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization's vice president of international affairs, Nancy Travis, told Agri-Pulse: “BIO remains hopeful for a successful, science-based outcome to the technical consultations. Otherwise, the U.S. should begin the formal dispute resolution process without delay.”

Mexico is importing white corn from the US

It’s unclear if the U.S. is still exporting GM white corn to Mexico, but at least some form of U.S. white corn is going there, according to data from USDA’s Federal Grain Inspection Service.

FGIS said in its latest weekly report on Monday that it inspected about 27,000 metric tons of white corn that is destined for delivery to Mexico. The data does not distinguish between GM and conventional corn. American farmers grow and export both.

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Mexico doesn't test the corn at the border, one U.S. government official tells Agri-Pulse. Mexican government officials have been testing tortillas at local markets and asking some importers to specify if the corn they buy is going into tortilla production.

Some of that U.S.-grown white corn being sent to Mexico was grown by Dennis Erickson on the farm he owns in Tarkio, Missouri.

Erickson says he’s been growing non-GM corn for decades, selling it to buyers in places like South Korea, Canada and Mexico, but this will be the last year.

Erickson said he has been reducing the number of acres he plants with non-GM corn in recent years and this year he won’t be planting any at all because the margins are too low.

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