The Biden administration is moving quietly to sharpen its strategy and buttress its arguments as it takes internal steps toward a formal challenge to Mexico's ban on genetically modified white corn, according to sources with knowledge of the developments.

Mexico is still making moves to try to protect itself in the event of a dispute process, including reversing previous rejections of applications by U.S. seed companies for approval of biotech seed traits.  

Recent Mexican approvals of GM seed traits that the government previously rejected “are convincing proof” that Mexico’s latest decree to restrict biotechnology in the country “contributes to guaranteeing commercial flows with full normality and in adherence to the commitments of the (U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement),” Mexican Undersecretary of Foreign Trade Alejandro Encinas Najera told Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Jayme White and Chief Agriculture Negotiator Doug McKalip in a recent letter, a copy of which was viewed by Agri-Pulse.

Under North American trade rules, the United States is now free to initiate dispute proceedings against Mexico, but U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has made no public signal that she’s ready to do that. Meanwhile, the Office of the USTR has been hosting meetings with high-level representatives of U.S. farm groups, seed companies and the pesticide industry.

A government official confirmed for Agri-Pulse that the meetings have been taking place but did not talk about the substance.

McKalip3.jpgAmbassador Doug McKalip, USTR

All of the moves being made are focused on sharpening the potential U.S. case against Mexico while also ensuring the “next steps are effective in defending farmers against further harm resulting from the decrees,” said one of several sources who spoke to Agri-Pulse but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.

It was about two years ago that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued the country’s first decree against GM corn, prohibiting the approvals of new GM corn traits in the country and banning the grain “in the diet of Mexicans” by Jan. 31, 2024. The decree sparked widespread concern by American farmers that export billions of dollars’ worth of corn to Mexican importers annually.

It wasn’t until late in 2022 that the U.S. began officially pushing back hard on the decree and floating the possibility of a dispute under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Negotiations began in earnest in November after U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with López Obrador in Mexico City.

“We must find a way forward soon and I emphasized in no uncertain terms that – absent acceptable resolution of the issue the U.S. government would be forced to consider all options, including taking formal steps to enforce our legal rights under the USMCA,” Vilsack said after meeting the Mexican president. 

In December, Mexico sent a high-level delegation to Washington to offer a proposal to water down the decree. Mexico, the delegation said, would reconsider its rejections of approval applications for new GM corn traits and reduce the ban on GM corn to prohibition on the use of GM white corn by Mexican tortilla makers.

USTR and USDA officials said they appreciated the offer, but did not accept it. And then, on Jan. 30, the USTR took what many viewed as the first concrete step toward a potential dispute with Mexico. White and McKalip sent a letter to Mexican Undersecretary of Foreign Trade Alejandro Encinas Najera, demanding to see the scientific justification behind the country’s rejections of GM seed traits and plan to ban the imports of GM corn.

Najera did reply, but not until after Mexico approved some of the GM seed traits that it previously rejected and López Obrador issued a second decree. That second decree, Najera told USTR in his reply to the letter from White and McKalip, should allay any U.S. concerns.

Don’t miss a beat! It’s easy to sign up for a FREE month of Agri-Pulse news! For the latest on what’s happening in Washington, D.C. and around the country in agriculture, just click here.

Four separate times in the letter, Najera repeated: “On February 13, 2023, the 2020 Decree was repealed with the publication of the 2023 Decree. The United States of America is invited to review the 2023 Decree.” He included a link to the decree.

Najera’s response, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, did not provide any scientific reasoning or risk assessments requested by USTR, but it did stress some of Mexico’s priorities. Mexico, he said, “considers that the level of protection that has been determined for native corn is necessary to preserve food self-sufficiency, cultural identity, the biocultural wealth of farming communities, and the Mexican gastronomic heritage.”

But Mexico is also showing its willingness to give government approval to new GM seed traits despite the fact that both of its anti-GMO decrees promised to “revoke and refrain” from granting permits for them. McKalip told reporters in February that Mexico was making the approvals to try to avoid a dispute with the U.S.

On Feb. 13 – the same day that the second Mexican decree was unveiled Mexico’s Commission for Protection against Health Risks, which goes by the acronym COFEPRIS, announced that it was approving two GM seed traits that it had previously rejected back in February 2022, according to U.S. industry sources.

But Najera went further in the letter to White and McKalip.

“Following the publication of the new decree on corn, COFEPRIS has been very quickly authorizing biotech applications that had been denied in the recent past,” Najera said in a translation of the letter obtained through a FOIA request. “Thanks to its publication, nowadays 8 of the 14 corn seeds for which USTR expressed concern have been authorized, as well as another 4, particularly canola. If you allow me, I will keep you updated when new authorizations are issued.”

But Biden administration officials are not showing signs that they have been convinced, and López Obrador officials are not backing down.

Mexican Economy Minister Raquel Buenrostro, in a letter to USTR Katherine Tai, was emphatic that the second presidential decree did not break any agreements under USMCA.

The letter, welcoming a visit by Tai to Mexico City in April, wrapped up by saying:  “It seems fundamental to clarify some interpretations that have been given to the decree. From our perspective, this document is consistent with the provisions of the USMCA and it clarifies the scope and objectives of the food security policy of the Government of Mexico.”

Noah Wicks contributed to this article.

For more news, go to