Lawmakers, farm groups and the ag industry are all eager for the Biden administration to move to a dispute process over Mexico’s restrictions on genetically modified white corn, but there’s no sign yet from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative that it’s ready to do that.

USTR Katherine Tai could decide to prolong the ongoing technical consultations period under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement or demand dispute consultations — the first real step in a formal dispute process that could result in a third-party panel taking the case.

The minimum 30-day window for the more benign sanitary and phytosanitary discussions ended April 7.

USTR officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Lawmakers are for now giving Tai some space, says one ag industry official who stressed that their patience will wear thin soon.

One lawmaker who is not willing to give the USTR more time is Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

“After already dragging its feet before acknowledging the problem, UTSR has let more time slip through its fingers and left farmers with deep uncertainty,” Grassley said in a statement provided to Agri-Pulse. “The administration needs to make good on its commitments and follow through on the USMCA dispute resolution process. American agriculture, in a year of continuing financial ambiguity, needs to know if our largest corn export markets is going to hold up.”

Chuck Grassley speaks to Scott Hutchins4_Senate Ag Committee July 2019Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa

There are plenty of other lawmakers who are also anxious to see the USTR move forward with a USMCA dispute, and they made their desires clear during two days of hearings a couple of weeks ago. Tai testified first at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on March 23 and then before a House Ways and Means Committee hearing the next day on March 24.

“We feel that there’s starting to be movement to get something done … however, this has got be expedited,” Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, told Agri-Pulse on the sidelines of the Ways and Means hearing.

And the National Corn Growers Association is keeping up its pressure for swift action against Mexico.

“Mexico’s action to block biotech corn imports is a clear violation of USMCA,” NCGA President Tom Haag told Agri-Pulse. “Given the effects the trade barriers are having on farmers and rural economies and their potential impact on the Mexican people, we call on USTR to initiate a dispute settlement immediately if a quick resolution is not reached.”

Nevertheless, it's not surprising that the Office of the USTR did not move immediately to cut off the technical consultations and move to a dispute process, said one U.S. government official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity and fluidity of the situation. USTR officials are taking time to mull over Mexico’s arguments provided in that March meeting and Mexico’s Feb. 13 presidential decree on GM corn and glyphosate, some of which are novel.

Mexico made several different arguments on why it is prohibiting tortilla companies from using GM white corn as well as seeking to eventually keep all biotech corn out of the country.

Mexico says the drastic measures are intended to preserve the country’s cultural and gastronomic heritage, protect biodiversity as well as human health.

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“They basically threw four things against the wall, and they’re trying to see which ones stick,” the U.S. government official said.

Mexico’s claims about concerns for biodiversity and human health threats are not new topics, and trade negotiators are accustomed to dealing with them, the official said. But arguments about cultural and gastronomic heritage are new ground for the agency.

During an interview with Agri-Pulse Newsmakers, USDA Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Alexis Taylor focused on the science behind the safety of GM corn.

“We have confidence in what our scientific evidence says about these products,” she said. “They have been around for decades, they have been highly researched, and by all accounts, they are proven safe.”

The technical consultations, which only consisted of one day of in-person meetings in Mexico City last month, may or may not be over. Tai recently left the door open for the consultations to continue beyond April 7 and Taylor stressed that the U.S. may want to hear more from Mexico.

“We are in internal conversations now in assessing what we heard,” she said, adding that officials may have “additional questions” for Mexico that need to be answered before decisions can be made on “our next steps and what our path forward will be.”

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